A great quartet trio

 

Hugo Wolf String Quartet

Ensemble Music Society

Indiana History Center

Feb. 6

Sometimes it isn’t how well you play as much as what it is you’re playing. In the Ensemble Music Society season’s fourth program, the Hugo Wolf Quartet came up winners because they came here with winning repertoire — the most meaningful I’ve heard since I can remember. I was transfixed. This Viennese group, formed in 1993, features violinists Sebastian Gürtler and Régis Bringolf, violist Gertrud Weinmeister and cellist Florian Berner. They opened with Haydn, followed with Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite for String Quartet (1926) — the greatest quartet writing of the 20th century — and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat, Op. 130 (1825), one of the five greatest quartets of all time.

Haydn’s Quartet in D, Op. 20 No. 4 served as the Hugo Wolf opener, and it was one of many prime examples our performers could have picked. Considered the “father of the string quartet” more even than the father of the symphony, Haydn’s six Op. 20 series set the “tone” for the genre’s absoluteness and intensity of musical expression. He did this by weaving the principal line equally among the four instruments with an ease showing him the earliest master of the genre he created.

Our players began the D major with a soft rhythmic figure immediately indicating a work far more serious than the light entertainment pieces quartet groups had been used to playing before 1770. So it went, with a long, expressive D minor theme and variations second movement and an equally short minuet — over in a flash. Its Presto Finale shows a strong development section characteristic of later Classical period works.

One of the three principal members of the Second Viennese School, Berg wrote his Lyric Suite in serial (12-tone) form, but with sufficient common chord transitions to give it the Romantic weight the more severe 12-tone works lack. Its six short movements explore every conceivable interval and harmony; yet it moves with compelling craft and intense inevitability. Some attending might have noticed its final movement’s brief quote of the Tristan Prelude motif from Wagner’s opera; that was surely to keep you on your toes.

With Beethoven’s Op. 130, our performers returned to his original concept: six (long) movements, ending with the titanic “Große Fuge” (Great Fugue). Of the five “late” Beethoven quartets, this was the most ambitious, each movement independent in theme, mood and in every other way. The “Great Fugue” ties them all together, its coda reaching the sublime.

All these quartets have been better played, with richer tones, more expressiveness and “smelling more roses” along the way. But the Hugo Wolf gets credit for choosing them, giving us snappy, virtuosic accounts, which could not conceal their greatness.

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