HUGO WOLF – String Quartet in D minor

Hugo Philipp Jacob Wolf [1860-1903] was an Austrian composer who wrote one string quartet, composed from 1878–1884. It is considered to be a classic of the genre; I hope I can do it justice!

The first movement, which is very long, is marked grave, and commences in exactly that manner. A deep cello supports some serious violin melodies. There are many violin swoops and a lot of energy before a softer, more uplifting passage is introduced. The music is a bit ambivalent at this stage, modulating between major and minor tonalities, and different intensities. There are some forceful violin melodies, with strong cello accompaniment. I hear shades of late Beethoven here, which should give you an idea of some of the textures. A quieter section searches for a melody, upon which it finally settles. A more frantic passage then takes over, as the previously mentioned ambivalence continues. Then for a time, the music consists of one sustained low cello note, before the violins bring some intensity, with much quivering of bows. A wonderfully peaceful solo violin results in a brief, lamenting mood, and the ensemble ease back in, before gradually raising the intensity again. A pause reintroduces a tempo and the violins resume in another Beethovian mood. A softer passage leads into a dance-like feeling. There is some respite as we near the end. The violins reduce the intensity before they move again into a frenzy, and eventually a final flourish.

The following movement opens with a motif taken from Beethoven, and is developed at great length in a section of medium intensity. The motif keeps returning until eventually, a precious violin melody takes over. The accompaniment is very complementary and evokes a most alluring passage. Now a change to a minor leads us into a brief interlude and, further variations on the motif lead to a conclusion. I actually find this Beethoven motif to be quite distracting, it is just so prevalent within the movement.

The third movement is very long, and marked langsam, which should make it worthwhile. A lone violin creates a slow melody, and with much subtlety, the other instruments enter, with great respect for the mood. The violin becomes stronger, and it is solo again for a time. The cello interjects with strong lines and the ensemble slowly bring a sense of form to the music; the violins combining to create a luxuriant atmosphere. A change comes with persistent minor chord thrusts, before returning to the previous feeling. There are several violin interjections, but the basic emotion is one of deep bliss. Eventually, the mood is broken and we have some rhythmic chords in a tempo. The chords don’t persist, but the tempo does. Now the violins begin to express optimistic melodies, with occasional rhythmic forays. This is a bit similar to the earlier ambivalence. A solo violin section evokes memories of the beginning, and the ensemble gather around, seeking melodies. The ending is most graceful. This is music from heaven.

The final movement begins in a positive mood, as the violins push hard to create a tempo. A very light, airy passage allows the first violin to express freely. Now a solo cello statement introduces a propulsive section, which eventually gives way to another solo cello moment. The violins become very lilting, gathering rhythm, as the passage progresses through several mood changes. Ambivalence seems to be an integral part of Wolf’s style. Tempo changes are in abundance in this movement. A pause brings a busy solo cello section, which again, builds into a strong tempo that leads to an extended flourish to finish.

This is a major Late Romantic work. My impression is that it owes a heavy debt to Beethoven, particularly in the first two movements. Wolf also arranged it for string orchestra, naming it Italian Serenade. This version is not long, so it is probably just one movement. There are only a few orchestral versions that I could find, but it does turn up on various CDs.

My review copy, titled Wolf – Complete Music for String Quartet, is on the Brilliant Classics label, performed by the Prometeo String Quartet. This version is available on Amazon US at a nice price. Many other versions exist.

It is also on Spotify, earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Classic Late Romantic quartet with a stunning slow movement.


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