WORKS: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 5
PERFORMER: Artis Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: NI 5646
I’m always wary of making exaggerated claims on behalf of a composer who up till now has remained unaccountably neglected. Yet the case of Karl Weigl (1881-1949) is somewhat unusual. A pupil of Zemlinsky, he became a prominent member of Schoenberg’s inner circle in the early years of the 20th century, and later achieved a breakthrough with the award of the prestigious Beethoven Prize for his Third Quartet. After the First World War, his works were championed by a whole roster of distinguished musicians including the Rosé, Kolisch and Busch Quartets, and conductors Walter, Szell and Furtwängler. Unfortunately, Weigl was one of many composers of Jewish origin who fell victim to the Nazis. Forced out of Austria in 1938, he spent his final years in America composing in virtual isolation.
Hearing this compelling music performed with such commitment by the Artis Quartet one wonders how on earth it could have gathered dust on library shelves for so long. The First Quartet is a wonderfully passionate late-Romantic work, very much in the tradition of early Schoenberg (the latter’s First Quartet, completed around the same time, offers an obvious parallel). Conceived on the largest scale, with a brooding Mahlerian slow movement acting as a poignant finale, its thematic ideas are distinctive and cogently argued. There’s a similar compositional mastery in the Fifth Quartet – a more overtly conservative work that convincingly asserts Weigl’s adherence to the Viennese tradition of Schubert and Wolf, as well as his rejection of the tonal innovations of Schoenberg. I need hardly add that this disc deserves the strongest recommendation. Erik Levi