Live Chamber Music: The Hugo Wolf String Quartett at Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall

By Don Heckman

Ashland, Oregon. The utterly irresistible appeals of string quartet music returned to Southern Oregon University’s Music Recital Hall on Friday night and Saturday afternoon in another prime presentation by Chamber Music Concerts.

The program was delivered by the extraordinarily gifted players of Vienna’s Hugo Wolf String Quartett. In the two hours of the Friday night performance, they offered an exemplary overview of more than two centuries of string quartet music at its most intriguing.

The Hugo Wolf players – violinists Sebastian Gurtler and Regis Bringolf, viola player Thomas Selditz and cellist Florian Berner – each a virtuosic artist in his own right, have been together as an ensemble for more than two decades, performing in major venues around the world. And their musically symbiotic relationship, combined with virtuosic technique and interpretive excellence, produced convincing versions of works reaching from Franz Joseph Haydn to Franz Schubert, climaxing with the premiere of a contemporary quartet commissioned by the Wolf Quartett from Austrian composer Gerhard Winkler.

The Hugo Wolff Quartet
The Hugo Wolff Quartet

The program began with Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat Major, Op. 33, often described as “the Joke Quartet.” And with good reason. Haydn was one of the important founders of the Classical string quartet structures. With this composition, however, he chose to insert some atypical, intentionally humorous twists in the harmonic scheme, clearly hoping to surprise his listeners. Add to that his use of long pauses and sudden bursts of a brief, repetitious melodic fragment. The result, for his 18th century audiences, as well as Friday night’s listeners, was amused bursts of laughter. “Don’t take everything too seriously,” he seemed to be saying in this immensely entertaining work, which was performed by the Wolf Quartett with vigorous enthusiasm.

Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor, D. 810, subtitled Death and the Maiden offered a far different musical mood. Composed in 1824, a few years before his death in 1828, its subtitle traces to a song he wrote in 1817. Both the quartet and the song reflect the illnesses Schubert was experiencing, along with his obsession with what he viewed, correctly, as the approaching end of his life at the early age of 31.

Understandably, his D minor Quartet is a work filled with emotional density, often juxtaposing dark, intense passages with unexpected moments of soaring lyricism. The Wolf Quartett players’ interpretation was gripping, capturing the diverse emotions with a convincing blend of affective expression and technical mastery.

The Winkler composition, identified only as String Quartet offered far different challenges. The concert’s program guide refers to his frequent use of multi-media interaction in his works, often using electronic media. In this work, however, the Wolf Quartett instrumentalists are asked to create the sort of complex textures and dense dissonant sounds often provided by electronics along with the spontaneity associated with indeterminate notation. The result was a stunning collage of sounds, played with brilliant technique by the Wolff Quartet. While the piece offered none of the Classical musical structures usually associated – even in many contemporary works – with string quartets, it was nonetheless a fascinating showcase for the Hugo Wolf String Quartett.

It’s worth noting that the Gerhard Winkler identified in the program guide as the composer of String Quartet, presumably is not the German composer, Gerhard Winkler, who was born in 1906 and died in 1977.  It’s unclear, either in the program guide or in Google, whether or not they’re related.

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Photo by Nancy Horowitz courtesy of the Hugo Wolff Quartet.

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