Most people know that Wilhelm Furtwängler and Artur Schnabel, great conductor and pianist respectively, composed. But Bruno Walter, stalwart Mahler advocate and fine Mozart conductor?
Turns out he did. In fact the (then) well-known Rosé Quartet played his 1903 String Quartet in D Major in November of that year and, in 1905, performed the Piano Quintet (with Walter himself at the piano).
The D-Major Quartet lasts just a touch under 45 minutes, so it's no shrinking violet. Walter's musical style is fascinating. The key appellation is entirely apt for much of the time - this is tonally-rooted music, with an occasional sunniness that reminds me, at least, of Schubert (this is mirrored by the indication, “Frisch” - fresh, or crisp) . Some cadential gestures seem even to link to German dances, yet when Walter moves into polyphonic territory he's very much his own man, unafraid of bare sonorities that eventually knit together to more substantive textures that in turn, surprisingly, career off into happy violin song. There is humour here (again, that surprised me but then I thought of Walter's affinity with Mozart ...);
The Vienna-based Aron String Quartet play with great understanding - and seriousness. This works beautifully in the Innigkeit of the second movement, the slow centre of the work (intriguingly, I used the word 'Innigkeit' before I read the composer's indication for this movement - 'Langsam und inning'!). First Violinist Ludwig Müller sings the high lines beautifully, and there is some truly wonderful interplay of lines here:
The musical argument intriguingly moves from one aspect to another rather swiftly and unpredictably. there is something Schubertian about the return of the opening's fragility about eight minutes in (and how well cellist Christophe Pantillon articulates his staccato 'comments' onto main legato line). The richness of sound the Aron Quartet can conjure works a treat here.And the final minute or so is truly surprising,unlike anything else so far.
The third movement is traditionally the Scherzo or Minuet. What we have here is an appropriately brisk movement, but marked “Allegro agitato” and “Leidenschaftlich”. Agitation and sorrow do indeed seem to sum this up. The music seems to strain to dance and yet won't quite take off. A repeated figure seems to suggest a territory that is not realised, a non sequitur that actually is very effective, as this music feeds on unpredictability. The Trio includes a melody that could be a folk tune or a German lullaby:
The finale begins with an interestingly marked section ('twas schlepped - somewhat dragging) that contains much contrapuntal beauty. The fairly close recording and the expertise often Aron Quartet maximise this passage's effectiveness - and intensity. It is truly glorious, as the music flowers naturally; the main body of the finale hardly lets that intensity drop except for the odd moment of frivolity, Walter style. There are moments here that are clearly late Romantic in intention, that sound like Mahler reduced for string quartet, but they are fleeting within the whole. A fascinating piece!:
This is the World Premiere performance of the String Quartet, but not of the Piano Quintet in F sharp minor (1905) - that has been released on Naxos, where it was coupled with one of Walter's most popular (discographically-speaking, at least) works, the Violin Sonata.
Walter looks more to Brahms and Mahler in his Piano Quintet (and more to the former than the latter overall). The first movement is marked “Mit Energie,” and all players - the quartet now joined by the excellent pianist Massimo Giuseppe Blanchi (who studied with Bruno Canino) - respond in kind. The oscillating string figures remind me a bit of early Schoenberg, but when the music lunges into the depths (just after the three minute mark) is when it properly grips the listener. The string playing on this release is astounding in its accuracy:
The Naxos alternatives features Ekaterina Frolova as pianist. There's only about 20 seconds in the timing (with Naxos the swifter) but there is a big difference in intent. The Naxos is full of power; but the recording lets it down, shrill up top for the violins. A shame, as Frolova is a fine pianist, but the string contributions can feel haphazard in comparison with the Aron Quartet members:
One of the biggest (pleasant) surprises of the cpo disc is the sheer beauty of the opening of the Quintet's slow movement. It's heavenly,aand enjoys the slightly odd indication of “Ruhig und heiter” (Calm and cheerful). Here melody is contrasted with a dotted motif that brings forward movement, the whole coming to the most remarkable conclusion, full of imagination:
The Aron Quartet lets the music breathe and takes 8"12; the Naxos players take 6"40 and feel rushed in comparison. There are some lovely moments in the Naxos performance, most notably in the handling of those dotted rhythms, but there is no doubt where my allegiance lies. The Naxos recording blurs occasionally, too:
The third movement is marked “Geheimnisvoll beget” - Mysteriously moving. The cpo performance captures this slightly spooky atmosphere well, and Bianchi's fluent pianism is most appealing:
.. but the Naxos performance is lighter - sparer - in texture and is certainly more elusive than the Aron Quartet with Bianchi. This is the only movement that the Naxos players get closer to what Walter seemed to want:
The finale is grand and big-boned. There is one proper full-stop at one point; after which a violin soars, momentarily carefree (it doesn't last long before the complexity returns):
The Aron Quartet and Blanchi inject real life through their assertive accents and understanding of Welter's use of gesture. The Naxos recording blunts any assertiveness the players might inject. Theirs is a broader reading (by around 25 seconds in an approximately seven-minute movement), but they let the tension sag a little - too much for Walter's score, sadly. And so my allegiance remains with cpo. Here's the Naxos finale:
As always with cpo, the repertoire is fascinating and the performances excellent. Bruno Walter's music is most worthy of our attention ...