New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon
Wednesday, 26 February 2020
Karl Weigl String Quartets 7 and 8 Thomas Christian Ensemble
Quartets Nos. 7 and 8
CPO 555 201-2
The CPO label regularly unearths composers of the
late-Romantic era who have fallen into obscurity. Karl Weigl (1881–1949) fits
that bill, although he is not completely unknown on records, and this is one of
12 discs of his music currently available, on a range of labels—though the only
one to present either of these works. Weigl’s path to relative obscurity is a
wearingly familiar one: a Jewish musician in Vienna, well-respected and
reasonably successful, forced to flee the Nazis, then exiled in America and
forgotten. But Weigl’s story doesn’t quite fit the mould, especially as his
time in the States was more successful than that of his many colleagues,
especially Zemlinsky, who had been his teacher, and Schreker, who had
previously conducted Weigl’s orchestral works. Weigl arrived in New York in
1938, and established himself as a piano soloist, and also performed piano duets
with his wife, the composer Vally Weigl. He also pursued an increasingly
successful career as a teacher, with appointments at the Hartt School of Music,
the Boston Conservatory, and the Philadelphia Academy of Music. These two
string quartets, his last, were written during these years, in 1942 and 1949
respectively. The Eighth was one of his final works, and neither was performed
in his lifetime.
Weigl brought to America a wealth of Viennese
tradition. His outlook was largely traditional, yet his position in the culture
wars of turn-of-the-century Vienna is difficult to pin down. The excellent
liner note, by Michael Haas, offers some clues. Schoenberg admired Weigl’s
music, and described him as “one of the best composers of [the] older
generation … ” a curious statement, given that Schoenberg was seven years
younger than Weigl. What he meant was that Weigl was “ … one of those who
continued the dignified Viennese tradition of the Porporas, Fuxes,
Alberchtsbergers and Sechters.” But the fact that Schoenberg rated Weigl’s
music at all suggests that he was far from a reactionary conservative. The
aesthetic path of Weigl’s music paralleled the Second Viennese School, at least
in the first decade of the century. And even if it remains tonally-oriented,
and broadly Romantic, right up to the end, there is a radical streak here, and
an individual voice. Brahms is an over-riding influence, as he was for almost
every composer of the era, but Weigl shapes the Brahmsian model—of rigorous
counterpoint and intricate rhythmic working—in a satisfyingly personal way.
Of these two string quartets, the real find is No. 7.
Both quartets are on a similar scale, 30 and 24 minutes respectively, and both
traditionally structured, but the Seventh is much the more involving. The
opening movement resembles Reger, with Brahmsian counterpoint over adventurous
harmonies, but is less fraught. The second movement, an Allegro molto scherzo, is biting and rhythmically focused. Mid-way
through a stamping folk dance appears in the cello, but, typically for Weigl,
it dissipates after just a few bars, giving way to rigorous development of its
motifs. The slow third movement is a gem: one of those Adagios were time seems to stand still, with long melodic lines,
always logical but never predictable, and a background that merely suggests
tonal areas and chordal warmth. It is a direct successor to the third movement
of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, and just as engaging.
The Eighth Quartet is more austere. Again the textures
are mostly built on extended passages of rigorous counterpoint, but, unlike in
the Seventh, this seems more the subject than the medium. Harmonies are colder,
and the textures more brittle. But the music is often involving too. The slow
opening of the last movement is particularly attractive, another atmospheric
moment of delicately contoured counterpoint, hanging weightlessly in the upper
register of the instruments, an effect of almost orchestral sophistication.
The performances and recordings here are excellent.
The Thomas Christian Ensemble is a chamber music collective organized by the
eponymous Christian, who here leads an quartet of Raimund Lissy, second violin;
Robert Bauerstatter, viola; and Bernhard Naoki Hedenborg, cello; that last name
familiar from the roster of the Vienna Philharmonic. Weigl’s contrapuntal style
it well represented in performances of great detail and clarity. Vibrato is
kept to a minimum, and balances within the group are carefully gauged.
Christian’s violin dominates the sound picture, and his tone sometimes narrows
in the upper register, but again, this isn’t the sort of music that invites
warmth and richness from its players. The CPO recording is similarly dry and
detailed, though not claustrophobic or overly analytical. A fascinating
release, recommended primarily for the Seventh Quartet.
appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:5.