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Woldemar BARGIEL (1828-1897)
String Quartet No. 3 Op. 15b (1850) [17:58]
String Quartet No. 4 Op. 47 (1888) [30:04]
String Octet Op. 15a (1849, rev. ca.1859) [34:12]
String Quartet No. 1 (1848) [16:52]
String Quartet No. 2 (1849) [22:34]
Orpheus Quartet
With Yume Sato and Amane Horie (violin), Julia Rebekka Adler (viola), Eva Freitag (cello) (octet)
rec. 2013, Siemensvilla Berlin; 2016, Studio Britz Berlin.
CPO 555 095-2 [48:07+73:44]

It’s been said before, but discovering entirely new composers is one of the delights of collecting CDs and having the privilege of reviewing them when the opportunity arises. Woldemar Bargiel’s orchestral works have popped up on recordings before, for instance on the Toccata Classics label. Bargiel is remembered as being a half-brother of Clara Schumann, his mother having been married to Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck, before marrying Adolph Bargiel, a respected piano and voice teacher.

Woldemar Bargiel has long been under the shadow of Robert Schumann, of whom he was something of a disciple, and Johannes Brahms – great names who have inevitably tended to obscure less renowned figures, though Bargiel was “well connected during his life and a sought-after personality in European musical life.” Michael Wittmann’s substantial booklet notes add that a huge archive of his letters has survived, and research into his life is ongoing at the Berlin State library.

These string quartets offer something of an overview of Bargiel’s stylistic development, though the first two are student works. Taking them in chronological order, the First String Quartet is highly effective, though with an academic touch which sometimes sees material stick around longer than we’ve become used to with the examples of Haydn and Mozart. This unpublished piece is played here from manuscript, acting as a kind of prelude to the Second String Quartet, which is more ambitious both in scale and harmonic language. The first violin dominance on the first quartet is now spread more between the other instruments, intensifying the texture and musical arguments, which also have stronger thematic content – the first movement’s main theme being almost Mahlerian: a bit like the first movement of the Sixth Symphony The influence of middle-period Beethoven is apparent, as are the recommended models of Spohr and Cherubini, but as the booklet suggests, this might be considered Bargiel’s Opus 1.

The String Octet daringly – for its time – uses Mendelssohn’s model of doubling the string quartet to create a sound that expands the chamber-music feel of the music, but is distinct from the texture of a full string orchestra. There is a darkness and drama in the eighteen-minute first of three movements, giving the piece a symphonic scale which it manages to fill quite well, holding interest through its shading and melodic inventiveness. This is certainly an impressive creation and Michael Wittmann considers it to go beyond Mendelssohn’s in its expression, “covering the whole palette of conceivable feelings and moods from the elegiac introduction to the boisterous conclusion.”

The elevated lyricism of Robert Schumann emerges fully-fledged in the elegantly concise Third String Quartet, the attractive opening theme of which making it the ideal opening work for this collection. There is a sprightly lightness in the first two movements which contrasts nicely with the subdued but still lyrical third Andante sostenuto; the final Vivace ed energico a rhythmically thrusting conclusion with ostinato repeated notes driving the melodic counterpoint forwards. The Fourth String Quartet came nearly four decades later, with Bargiel concentrating on teaching rather than composition in the intervening period. Late Beethoven is evoked here, retaining the ‘song-like insertions’ that also characterise the Third Quartet, but adapting traditional form to allow for rumination and expansive exploration of thematic material. The first movement of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet Op. 115 is considered to be at least in part a response to this movement. The Andante second movement has a prayer-like opening which unfolds into something with more song-like character, though with dramatic interjections and an admirable lack of sentimentality. The third movement functions as a scherzo, with bouncy rhythms and a Brahms-like variation feel in its thematic treatment, while the final Allegro ma non troppo often has an understated feel, with motiefs thrown between the instruments over a chugging accompaniment, and relatively brief climactic moments.

Superbly performed and recorded, this is a release which no fan of this musical period should be without. Much as I admire Brahms, Woldemar Bargiel’s string chamber works avoid the earnest churning that can make the former’s music in this genre somewhat heavy going at times. Those who appreciate Mendelssohn’s luminosity and Schumann’s lyricism will find much to enjoy here in a blend of classical clarity and romantic expressiveness with a light touch with here and there a nod towards Bach’s contrapuntal mastery.

Dominy Clements

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