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Joseph Wölfl. The String Quartets


Text of the booklet "Joseph Wölfl. The String Quartets"

Joseph Wolfl, once a popular composer and pianist, hailed from Salzburg. When Wolfl was born in 1773 his brilliant countryman Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was employed by the archbishop of Salzburg. The young composer had the good fortune to study with Mozart’s father Leopold and also with the brother of another Viennese classic composer, Michael Haydn. After receiving an excellent professional training Wolfl became a versatile musician. As a pianist he took part in competitions with Beethoven – according to Seyfried, these ‘duels between two giants’ gave the listening public extraordinary satisfaction, while as a composer Wolfl wrote masterpieces in every genre, showing exceptional diversity of style.
Like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, he was unable to resist the cultural magnetism of the Imperial capital. At the age of seventeen Wolfl declared his independence by setting off for Vienna to see Mozart. Quite possibly the latter showed sincere concern for the fate of his young countryman, for it was apparently under Mozart’s protection that Wolfl found employment with Count Oginski and moved to Warsaw. Here he began his concert performances and soon gained a reputation as an outstanding pianist.
However, an artist who belonged to the generation of classic Viennese composers could not stay away very long, and five years later, in 1795, Wolfl returned to the capital. His Viennese compositions include several operas, moreover the first of these, Der Hollenberg, was written with Emanuel Schikaneder, Mozart’s friend and author of the libretto for the famous Die Zauberflote. The composer was also drawn to ‘pure’ music, which already in his early works seemed to conduct a dialogue with contemporary musical art: the Three Piano Trios Op.5 are dedicated to Franz Joseph Haydn, and the Three Sonatas Op.6 to the young Beethoven.
In 1798 Wolfl married the actress Therese Klemm and set off on an extensive tour of Europe, accompanied by his wife. He was hailed wherever he went, be it Brno, Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, Hamburg or Berlin. Wolfl excited the most rapturous welcome in Napoleonic France, where he arrived in 1801 and stayed for several years (in one Paris journal Wolfl is referred to as ‘the most thrilling pianist in Europe’). His opera L’Amour romanesque was staged in Paris in early 1804, but only a year later the composer hastily left the French capital. Why? Some say that Wolfl was involved in some dubious venture after he became a close friend of singer and notorious cardsharper Ellenreich and they went into hiding from the police, fleeing first to Brussels, then London. Others attribute his departure from Paris to the cool reception of his opera Fernanda, which was premiered in early 1805. Yet another theory is that Wolfl gave music lessons to the Empress Josephine and he accompanied her to Switzerland after the divorce from Napoleon. What really happened is unrecorded. ‘We only know that thereafter Wolfl’s life is shrouded in mystery,’ observes Riemann.
One thing is certain – the composer lived in London towards the end of his life. For several years he continued to give concerts as well as teaching and publishing his works. But his career in London was only moderately successful. As in Paris, he had hoped to impress the public with his opera compositions but only received commissions for a couple of ballets staged at the Royal Opera House.
Wolfl passed away suddenly in 1812, a year of great significance that shook the Old World and marked a watershed between one epoch and the next. It was as if the composer preferred to remain in the eighteenth century. For almost two years the public were dubious about reports of his passing and rumours were rife that he was still alive and well. By the age of thirty-nine Wolfl had written seven operas, two ballets, numerous piano and chamber compositions for various instrumental ensembles, three symphonies and seven concertos for piano and orchestra. His broad legacy, impressive in scale but also due to his remarkable talent, remained in the repertoire for several decades before it was overshadowed by the bold new age of Romanticism.
Among his other chamber compositions Wolfl was the author of eighteen string quartets. The string quartet is a distinctive and favoured genre among classic composers. A learning tool for composers in some ways, it also serves to demonstrate mastery (Mozart refined his polyphonic skills and his command of form and style in the ten early quartets, before dedicating his best quartets, the last six, to Haydn). Due to the graphic austerity of instrumental lines, the clear and balanced part-writing, universality of thematic material and economy of means, the quartet was consonant with the sense of proportion, harmony, rationality and expediency essential to classical art. Moreover the chamber genre was always responsive to experiment and innovation, and despite overall adherence to the central canon it is hard to find similar compositions, even in the work of one and the same composer.
Indeed, this is fully applicable to the three Wolfl quartets in the present recording. The compositions are dated 1805 and were preceded by the Op.4 and Op.10 quartets of 1798 – 1799,  dedicated to Mr. Leopold Staudinger and Count Maurice de Fries respectively. Therefore notwithstanding the composer’s youth the Op.30 quartets are a manifestation of developed technique and mature composing style. Wolfl’s mastery is truly inventive, his music fresh and original.
All three cycles are arranged in the classical manner. They consist of four movements, the first being a dynamic Allegro in sonata form which is later reflected from a distance in the precipitate race of the finale. Between the first and last movements come a slow movement, a realisation of the lyrical concept, and a Minuet as a focus of the intellectually playful principle so important for classical aesthetics. In the work of classic composers the minuet loses not only its everyday purpose as a dance form, but also its ‘generic’ characteristics: accentuation, metric regularity, simplicity of texture and structure. What was once an uncomplicated popular dance apparently becomes an excuse for mind-games. From now on it is not only danced, but listened to and puzzled over in this fascinating rebus. Wolfl treats his Minuet in a similar manner: these are intricate pieces with unexpected modulations, sudden juxtapositions of remote keys, earnestly and humorously ‘filled’ with all kinds of polyphonic devices: imitations, canons, acrobatic voice exchanges. It would be no exaggeration to say that Wolfl’s minuets belong to the most intriguing movements of his quartets.
The Quartet in C Major Op.30 No.2 is associated with Mozart’s famous quartet in the same key, a work that musicians dub the ‘Dissonance’. Mozart’s Quartet KV 465, of which Wolfl may have been aware, is astonishing for the unusual sound of this ‘schoolroom’ key: the sharp and aurally unfamiliar combination of natural and flattened tones is striking even to a modern audience versed in the dissonant harmony of twentieth-century music. This chromatic acuity in the habitually tranquil key of C major is also a feature of the Wolfl quartet. It is clearly perceived, for instance, in the trio of the Minuet, where the cello bass notes ‘sliding’ by semitones appear to draw the other voices with them, giving the music a morose, crepuscular feel.
The first movement of the quartet shows faultless mastery of the quartet’s musical texture. All the voices are equally represented, independent and involved in a purely musical game where the main characters are a few initial motifs that play a brilliant ‘role’. These motifs blend with one another, transfer from one instrument to the next, change the direction of movement and either anticipate their entry or chime in late. The sudden intrusion of minor colours is very reminiscent of Mozart, yet at the same time links this music with the inevitable approach of the 19th century.
The second movement is the Minuet, still with attributes of the galant style, but with the remarkable harmonic innovations already mentioned.
Wolfl reveals his true colours as a concert performer in the Adagio. The violins come to the forefront, while the viola and cello support the ‘soloists’ with a chord accompaniment that occasionally resembles a piano arpeggio. This is a lyrical concert piece, delightful and virtuosic, emotionally reserved and contemplative. It seems to reconstruct the composer’s inner world, expressing those qualities characteristic of his musical nature and noted by contemporaries in his piano playing: objectivity, gentleness, unwavering correctitude, excellent taste and mastery.
The cycle ends with a brilliant finale. Apparently Wolfl is adhering to the unique Viennese classic creed by finding the most complex and unusual features in what is superficially simple. In the development process the straightforward and unpretentious main theme of the finale assumes extraordinary potential. The composer involves it in complicated polyphonic combinations and divides it in parts which are then whimsically reunited, all without betraying its virtuosity and splendour, with true artistry!
The Quartet in D Major Op.30 No.3 could be called the most ‘scholarly’ of all the works in this recording. Here the complex interaction of parts is given preference over the distinct individuality of each separate part. As a result it could be said that this quartet sounds archaic in comparison with others of the same opus. Already in the main theme of the first movement there are compositional experiments with imitations of the initial fourth motif, while the second group is based on the exchange of melodies. In the development Wolfl uses a rare and most intricate form of counterpoint – double-shifting: by cunningly uniting a pair of motifs he shifts them not only vertically, but horizontally, too. The Minuet, which is more like a witty scherzo, is also polyphonically complicated: in the trio the lower and upper parts are imitated in inversion, with the violin repeating the bass phrase in mirror reflection.
The marching rhythms, the severe restraint of tone-colour and the thematic generalisation make the music of the slow movement reminiscent of a tenebrous genius like Beethoven, although the return of the primary theme reminds us of Mozart: in the delicate interweaving of the upper part which accompanies the cello’s melody we hear an allusion to Cherubino’s aria ‘Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio’ (‘I no longer know who I am or what I’m doing’) in The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart – probably closest to Wolfl both in the character of his music and in the technique of a complex polyphonic treatment of musical material – can also be heard in the lively, dynamic finale of the quartet. Here, as in the first movement, Wolfl fills the exposition of sonata form with polyphony. For instance, the transition is begun by a fugato with a broken entry of the voices: the energetic theme in the spirit of a tarantella is first played by the viola, then the first and second violins, and finally the cello. The second theme is presented imitatively so that the instruments pass the initial motif from one to another in succession.
The Quartet in E Flat Major Op.30 No.1 is probably the most ‘romantic’ of the three Opus 30 quartets. Of course this does not mark a stylistic shift in Wolfl’s work, although this quartet has features related to Schubert’s early quartets that were written almost a decade later. The music of the first movement is permeated with an extraordinary and heartfelt appeal. The development has a colourful tonal plan with an alternation of remote and closely related keys, now in minor, then again in major key, so the different facets of the themes shimmer in turn.
The second, slow movement is a kind of lyrical intermezzo. If the first chords are reminiscent of Beethoven’s mournful heroics, further on in the high cello solo we recall Schubert once again. A string tremolo at the end of this movement reminds us that Wolfl was an experienced composer for the theatre, well versed in depicting his hero’s agitation. The dissonant harmony that concludes the Adagio will never be resolved – the Minuet begins in a different key, another surprise for the listener. Already in the second phrase the Minuet’s initial motif is ‘scattered’ across all the parts, engendering a four-part imitation. Then it insensibly penetrates the trio and joins a completely different melody. The cycle is crowned by a grand finale written in the form of a rondo. Yet again the composer turns to polyphony: elements of the main theme are continuously woven into the musical fabric, as a counterpoint to each second theme in turn. This solution is compositionally justified, since it helps to unify the diverse sections of the finale into a balanced and multi-figured whole.

Tatiana Sorokina, translation by Patricia Donegan


Text of the booklet "Joseph Wölfl. The String Quartets"


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