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8.557374 - BERG: String Quartet / Lyric Suite / WOLF: Italian Serenade
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Alban Berg (1885–1935)
String Quartet, Op. 3
Lyric Suite

Hugo Wolf (1860–1903)
Italian Serenade


Alban Berg died at much the same age as did his idol Mahler, and his output is a similarly limited one. Limited in number but not in scope, because, like Mahler's, Berg's catalogue contains few minor works and, unlike that of Mahler, features major contributions to all the principal genres. His chamber music centres on the two works for string quartet that come from complementary periods in his career, but these alone are enough to place him with the foremost exponents of the quartet medium during the first half of the twentieth century.

Arnold Schoenberg was fond of recalling that when the teenage Berg had come to him for lessons in 1904, he was unable to extend his musical thinking beyond songs. It was only with his single-movement Piano Sonata of 1908 [ Naxos 8.553870] that Berg produced a work fulfilling his teacher's requirements, and which was later published as his Op. 1. If, in this piece, Berg took the chromatic harmony of Wagner and Richard Strauss almost to its limits, he crossed the line in the last of the Four Songs (1909) that were to become his Op. 2. Thus it is that his String Quartet, Op. 3, completed in 1910 and given its private première the following year, is both a graduation exercise and also the composer's first extended foray into the non-tonal regions that were then being explored by Schoenberg and his older pupil Anton Webern.

A graduation piece it may be, but the musical language of the String Quartet is not far removed from that of Berg's maturity. Especially notable in its two-movement form, the salient ideas of the first are developed and intensified in the second, to an extent that the former can be seen as an exposition with the latter functioning as combined development and reprise. While there are precedents for this in some of Beethoven's late quartets, and in two of Schoenberg's major early achievements (the First String Quartet and First Chamber Symphony ), the process that binds the two movements into a single, overarching entity is here carried through with a rigour and conviction that were to have major implications for the quartet genre over a decade hence.

The first movement opens with a flourish that, along with the halting chords that follow, informs the whole work. A forceful climax, focusing on the flourish, is reached, after which the music quickly dies down. Detached chords usher in a new section that is brusquely curtailed, leaving the instruments to ruminate on a more lyrical motif before a general pause. The activity once more irrupts towards the movement's centre, in what is a freely unfolding reprise (replacing the development section) of the material heard thus far. This builds to the main climax, in which all the main motifs are daringly combined, before a lengthy coda recalls the lyrical motif and the movement fades away regretfully. The second movement opens with explosive activity across the whole quartet, calming so that aspects from the preceding movement can gradually filter through. A yearning motif on violins presently assumes the foreground, then the initial momentum is regained and a powerful climax (the emotional apex, indeed, of the whole piece) is reached. It is here that the flourish from the work's opening is recalled, presaging a return of the yearning motif then an extended coda in which the main motifs are heard in modified guises. The music gains in intensity, with a last surge of energy turning the flourish into a decisive final gesture.

Berg did not return to the string quartet until the summer of 1925, when he began his Lyric Suite, completed in October 1926 and first performed by the Kolisch Quartet in the following January. Again the form is unconventional: six movements, the odd-numbered of which become progressively faster and more disruptive, while the even-numbered ones become progressively slower and more intense. The expressive trajectory of the work towards greater emotional extremes is thus evident at a first hearing. What is not apparent, and remained unclear until long after Berg's death, is that the piece embodies his feelings over the relationship with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, the wife of a family friend and to whom the Lyric Suite was secretly dedicated. The final movement is actually a wordless setting of the poem De profundis clamavi by Charles Baudelaire and has latterly even been performed as a vocal piece. Such considerations should not detract, though, from the work's abstract mastery: the first in what was undoubtedly a 'golden era' for the string quartet that extended well into the next decade.

The Allegretto unfolds with an engaging verve that might well be described as 'jovial'. The texture is one in which all four instruments are closely intertwined; with a repeated-note motif, repeated at key points, the means of ensuring unity over this brief but highly active movement. The Andante begins with a sensuous, insinuating idea that is appropriately amorous. Also important is a slyly descending motif that appears at its tail. These are intently evolved either side of a static central passage, the music latterly evincing greater resolve before sinking back into sensuous calm. The Allegro is a scherzo whose scurrying outer sections are aptly marked 'mysterious'. Several brief motifs are thrown up during its course, but the movement only takes on greater substance in the central trio estatico, whose impulsive manner is itself swallowed up by a return to the opening music.

The Adagio is the work's heart, revealing an emotional depth that is well described as 'passionate'. Heaving chords launch into a maelstrom of emotion that only abates at the movement's still centre, the music then lurching towards a frantic climax before concluding in anxious resignation. The Presto is another scherzo, though here the three 'delirious' main sections generate a headlong rhythmic drive. In between are two quietly pulsating trios whose tenebroso marking underlines their darkly ominous feel. The second return of the scherzo builds incessantly to the slashing final bars. The Largo opens with stealthy pizzicato chords, duly opening out into music whose 'desolate' manner remains. There are several brief irruptions, the last of which draws all four instruments into a whirling ostinato that, having died down, bids the players fall silent one by one as the work fades beyond earshot.

Best known for his songs, Hugo Wolf wrote a fine String Quartet that was unheard in his lifetime. He returned to the medium in 1887 with his Italian Serenade, a light-hearted piece later orchestrated as the first movement of a larger suite that remained unrealised. Over a lively rhythmic backdrop, the high-spirited main theme is announced. This theme marks off alternating episodes, each of a subtly different nature, with the genial mood always respected. A central passage features humorously rhetorical exchanges between the instruments, then a lilting secondary theme steers the piece to its brief climax, before the return of the main theme and a piquantly understated close.

Richard Whitehouse


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