KARL WEIGL – String Quartet No. 5

Austrian-American Late Romantic composer Karl Weigl [1881–1949] wrote eight string quartets. He has an interesting pedigree, having lessons with Alexander Zemlinsky and attending university with Alban Berg as a classmate. I believe these experiences are reflected in the First Quartet, but not the Fifth, by which time the composer had moved on. Like many Jewish composers, he left Austria in 1938 for America, where he taught music in an academic role. The Fifth Quartet is in four movements and is firmly of the Late Romantic style.

The opening of this work takes you straight into a beautiful scene as a solo violin expresses a few sonorous notes, soon to be joined by gentle lines from the ensemble. A slight increase in dynamics leads to a tempo being invoked, with the cello engaging in a dialogue with the violins. A rubato feeling is fabulous as it unfolds with a resonant cello tone exchanging phrases with a violin. The entrance of the second violin leads to a change in mood, albeit wonderful, whilst increasing the emotional and physical intensity of the music. Now a measured conversation takes place and the tempo is gone. The melodies here are uncomplicated, and truly sublime. A period of pizzicato is a little lively, but the feeling soon drops back to the wondrous early mood, which is sustained until a faded conclusion. This has been a marvellous piece of Romantic writing.

The second, allegro movement has a momentum built on the back of the cello’s efforts as it positively vibrates through the music. Busy violin lines are almost an afterthought to the projection of the cello for a time. A sharp cello note leads to a pause, and then a refined nature is heard as the violins investigate what I would term Classical melodies. A key change pushes the music a little harder and the melodies become stronger as a result, with rhythmic accents in abundance. Nearing the end, the sound turns dainty for a moment, before the ensemble dashes to a final flourish.

A larghetto movement begins in a most lyrical, other-worldly manner as the violins edge their way through a stunning, peaceful landscape with a gently sparse, pulsing cello accompaniment. This is music that could make you weep, it is fine writing. There is a melancholy, but somehow it doesn’t present as sadness, just beauty. Slowly a change brings a little optimism, but the music stays very measured. The occasional cello notes have a mood all of their own, while the violins continue to express with a sense of longing, becoming even sparser as the passage unfolds. The cello steps forward a little to initiate a final, held chord. I don’t mean to sound saccharine, but this movement is something truly special.

The finale features an unusual opening, possibly even a little chaotic, but this is soon swept aside by a typical Romantic era mood. The tempo is strong, and the character wide ranging, however always returning to the basic pulse, which is brisk. After that which has come before, I am finding this movement to be a little pedestrian. It soldiers on, with its up-tempo musings and only occasionally hits the spot. The conclusion is an extended flourish leading to a sharp stop.

It is a bit of a shame about the last movement, as the first three are simply marvellous. The other work on the CD, the First Quartet from 1903 is strangely in a resolute Early Modern style – I shall consider that one in the future, it is quite a stirring experience. These two works together make for a fine set.

The review CD, Weigl – String Quartets 1 & 5 on the Nimbus Alliance label, is performed by Artis-Quartett Wien. It features an attractive art nouveau cover and is available on Amazon US and UK. Interestingly, there also exists a pairing of Weigl’s Third Quartet with two Alban Berg pieces, Lyric Suite and his one String Quartet.

Both of these CDs are on Spotify but only String Quartets Nos.1 and 3 can be found on earsense while only No. 1 is on YouTube.

Listenability: The first three movements are magical, the fourth, not so much.


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