Austrian-born Early Modern composer Egon Joseph Wellesz [1885-1974] wrote nine string quartets. He was one of Arnold Schoenberg’s original students, although history doesn’t seemed to have bracketed him with Anton Webern nor Alban Berg. The only available CD contains String Quartets Nos. 3, 4 and 6. What a shame – given the state of the classical CD market, I probably won’t get a chance to hear all of his other string quartets. For anyone interested in his fascinating life story, there is a very comprehensive article here.
The Fourth Quartet is in five movements, and was composed in 1920. Starting with some strong statements, a mood of peace ensues with atonal murmurings supporting a lone violin. The cello is a powerful force briefly, leading the ensemble back into a stasis with all instruments in a low register. Unexpectedly, the passage becomes dance-like, before resuming the previous feeling. A dynamic ensemble sustained phrase leads to an abrupt ending.
The movements seem deemed to be played without pauses as the brief second movement commences. It is a series of sporadic atonal violin lines over another murmuring background. There always seems to be something going on here; the cello is particularly evident, with periodic interjections. Two violins approach the end, which is one pizzicato cello note.
The next movement, again, quite short, begins with sparse violins leading into a solo cello passage. There is no apparent tempo as the cello dominates, with the violins adding support. Now a scratchy violin introduces a crescendo section which is quickly terminated. A sense of abstraction is beginning to dominate this piece and we have further dynamic interjections. A solo violin concludes but moves straight into the next movement, seamlessly. It has a small part to play as it hints at a melody. Another loud passage leads to a rhythm being established. The cello is prominent again and some raw violin thrusts lead into a tempo with the violins being interrupted by the cello. A change of tonality leads into a helter-skelter of notes and the cello drives forward, complementing the violins. It soon returns to solo and develops a motif which accelerates to another loud interjection. Solo cello ends the movement.
The finale opens with a raw cello passage. This alternates with violin melodies; again there is no tempo here, it is pure sound. A solo violin is soon joined by a pizzicato cello and this makes for a lamenting mood. One violin supports the other, and the ensemble come back in, leading to a solo cello statement. Again we have a soundscape with the violins reaching out for something, possibly another cello passage, which is the conclusion of the work.
I must confess to being really taken by this quartet. Conceptually it could be viewed without the movement structure as it constantly returns to several recurring musical spaces. It is mostly tonal, but there are some strange, dissonant passages. It’s not profound but I enjoyed its cyclical nature – soundscape upon soundscape.
The performance, by the Artis Quartett Wien is worth mentioning, mostly for the tone of the first violin. It is a fabulous rich sound. Similarly, the cello has a wonderful depth to its tone. Quite remarkable really.
Listenability: Mildly abstract expressionism.