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Reviews: Wölfl: The String Quartets - Pratum Integrum Orchestra Soloists

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Review by krisjan July 21, 2009 (5 of 5 found this review helpful)
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Review by Beagle December 10, 2009 (11 of 11 found this review helpful)
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Exactly how does one become famous? How do you elbow your way into the pantheon of 'Greats'? Beethoven did it by showing up in Wien and schmoozing with the musically minded aristocracy, just when they were feeling the lack of Mozart. Mozart had it done to him by a stage-father who dragged an infant son and daughter across Europe as a kind of musical sideshow for bored royalty. Haydn had a good agent (Salomon), double-dipped his publishers, then concocted his own myth with his biographer and laid claim to works he hadn’t written – including an all-time hit, the pizzicato Serenade of Opus 3: Haydn and his publisher conspired to commit intellectual theft when they raked humble Father Romanus Hoffstetter’s six quartets into the already large pile of works by Haydn himself. It took musicologists two centuries to dismantle their fraud – but at least Hoffstetter’s name was thus rescued from the dustbin of history.

Joseph Wölfl should have been so lucky, and the agèd Haydn would have done well for himself if he’d added some quartets by Wölfl to his Werkverzeichnis. The Wölfl quartets here are easily among the best quartets Haydn never wrote!

What a pity that Wölfl is such a great unknown; his life, as much as we know it, makes a great story. He’s a provincial pianist/violinist from (of all places) Salzburg, a nobody who shows up in Wien, takes lessons from Haydn’s brother and Mozart’s father, befriends Mozart himself, and wins a ‘draw’ in a piano duel with Beethoven. The later history is murky but suggestive: some shady dealings involving a card-sharp, fleeing Paris under cover of darkness, rumours of involvement with Napoleon’s mistress… Hollywood, eat your heart out!

The quartets on this disc have that magical quality of sounding familiar on the first hearing. Like Haydn (but not Mozart) Wölfl possesses the gift of tunefulness. More importantly, his genius revels in ‘the dialogue of friends’: these are no shallow quatuors brillantes for a virtuoso violinist and three pick-up artists, such as hacks like Boccherini wrote by the dozens. Wölfl plays the entire string quartet as a single instrument. And he adds something that I don’t hear in Haydn: an almost modern syncopation, an off-beat echo as the themes are tossed from chair to chair.

In ‘Amadeus’ Shaffer depicts Mozart as wickedly funny -- and Mozart did call his horn-playing friend an “ass” in a dedication, but I don’t hear much humour in the music. Wölfl and Haydn (but again not Mozart) effervesce with humour, perhaps the amused humour of the peasant who finds himself bumping periwigs with the all-too-mannered nobility.

There is light humour in the Finale of Wölfl’s Op. 30 no. 2; as a closing fast movement it is remarkably dance-like – I am sure the composer was as skilled in the art of dancing as he was in fiddling. It’s only my mnemonic, but I imagine words to this music: ‘I can fiddle a dancy tune, but can you dance it?’. But then in the Minuet of Op. 30 no. 3, the humour gets quite blatant – that is indeed a jack-ass braying! I look forward to this point in the recording (track 6), and last night more mnemonics came to mind, my own invention but plausible and entertaining. Let’s assume that we are in Wien where the southern accents are soft, but we have a Norddeutscher visiting, perhaps a tiresomely self-confident Prussian who is constantly saying “You! you southerners, you do it all wrong…”, or auf Deutsch “Euch! Süddeutscher tun es aller falsch…”* -- with his harsh northern accent making the ‘Euch’ blare forth like a jack-ass in full throat (for what it’s worth, it amuses me to hear it as such).

Caro Mitis has a delightful habit of decorating the top-sides of their discs with beautiful slavic patterns, making them easily the most beautiful (looking) discs in the SACD realm. So it is no great surprise to find beautifully played, exquisitely recorded music on the other side of the disc. Great stuff top to bottom here. If you have any sympathy for the classical era and its music, I strongly recommend acquiring this disc (and other Caro Mitis offerings). In the spirit of fair-mindedness, I confess I am less impressed with their other Wölfl disc with symphonies; that might be due to my predilection towards chamber-scale music, but perhaps the quartets are simply better than the symphonies. Haydn did say ‘I paint my symphonies with a broad brush, and save the finer touches for the connoisseur of chamber works’.

*Entschuldigen Sie mich; vielleicht mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut wie es war im Jahren ‘60s…

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