Wendling Quartet DG and Electrola Recordings Biddulph

Wendling String Quartet
The Deutsche Grammophon and Electrola Recordings (1920-1934)
Philipp Dreisbach (clarinet), Walter Reichardt (cello II)
rec. 1913 (Wittenberg Quartet), 1920-34 (Wendling Quartet)
Biddulph 85029-2 [2 CDs: 142]

Tully Potter’s booklet notes offer a fiesta of information concerning both the Wendling and Wittenberg String Quartets so I feel I can skim lightly over biographical matters other than to note that Wendling was born in 1875 and Wittenberg in 1880 and that both were Joachim students. Wendling’s group disbanded in 1947 and the Polish-born Wittenberg escaped to Shanghai in 1939 where he died in 1952. 

The vast bulk of the recordings are by the Wendling Quartet which is why only their name is on the booklet cover. So far as is know the Wittenberg String Quartet only left behind four released sides of quartet movements, recorded in 1913. The Wendling Quartet, by contrast, recorded later and more widely, making a sequence of similarly single-movement recordings in 1920. By 1929 they made their two most important contributions, and both are by Mozart – the Quartet in G, K.387 and the Clarinet Quintet with Philipp Dreisbach.

The salient features of the Wendling Quartet are limited vibrato, tonal purity and pervasive portamenti. As one of many of the inheritors of the Joachim tradition they display a buoyant musicality that is fully reflected in these recordings, though from time to time I feel a certain lack of incisiveness and characterisation, such as in K.387, where there is a sameness of projection across at least three of the movements. Their playing in the finale, by contrast, has vitality and textual clarity. The Clarinet Quintet is notable for the collaboration with Dreisbach, a pupil of Richard Mühlfeld, and for the authentic-sounding ethos of the playing with the string players’ copious slides as generous as Dreisbach’s vibrato. The disparity between them is marked, the effect being to make the strings, because of their lack of vibrato, sound significantly colder than the clarinet. I have to admit that I’m not quite sure if the strings’ over-emphasis at 5:07 in this first movement is because of an interpretive decision or because of a side change. Generally speaking, adherents of historical performances will relish the chance to hear the fruitful  and potentially timbral incongruity of the ensemble.

Generally, the Wendling were asked to record music from the Classical period – Haydn, Hoffstetter, Dittersdorf and a small amount of Beethoven back in 1920. Their most advanced repertoire on disc is Reger, a single movement from the Clarinet Quintet with Dreisbach and a single movement from the Quartet in A, Op.109. Both are very attractively performed though one can’t help wanting more than just these solitary movements. They have previously been transferred by Guild on GHCD2412 but I prefer these Biddulph transfers. The 1920 sequence has some variable surface noise and some of the sides used for transfer sound to have been played much more often than others. The third movement from Beethoven’s Op.18 No.5 sounds to have been steeled. Amongst the very best of this 1920 sequence is the subtle and flexible performance of the Scherzo from Schubert’s Quartet in G, D.887. 

The Wendling is joined by cellist Walter Reichardt for the Adagio (only) from Schubert’s great String Quintet in C, the last issued recording made by the group, in March 1934. The portamenti are supple, and the tempo taken, over three 78 sides, is one I happen to find attractive in its lack of lingering (12:30) whilst still remaining expressively generous. How fortunate concert goers of the time were to hear such a plethora of quartets with such varied backgrounds and aesthetics, with such starkly different approaches to vibrato and corporate sound. Remember that the Léner Quartet was at its height in this period and they could hardly offer a more graphic example of heavily vibrated performance practice.  

The Wittenberg Quartet’s 1913 Anker sides are rare and prized examples of quartet playing from the teens of the twentieth century. Their corporate tone was rather warmer than the Wendling, their vibratos more generous. One can contrast two of the four sides with the same pieces recorded by the Wendling – the finale of Mozart’s K.387 and the Beethoven Quartet Op.18 No.5, though the Wittenberg performance is abridged with variations 1 to 4 omitted. On the admittedly limited evidence available, I actually prefer the Wittenberg.  

This is a fine release that has restored an excellent and important body of recordings and it will make claims on the collector. Potter’s detailed and searching notes are splendid. Where I have a concern is not necessarily in the variable quality of the copies used for transfer but in the transfers themselves which have rendered the discs clean and listenable by employing too much treble cut. This is very audible in the Wendling transfers and excessively so in the case of the Wittenberg. I appreciate that Ankers can be noisy but the treble roll-off here deprives us of the full body of the quartet’s sound. My preference in these kinds of transfers lie with engineers such as Obert-Thorn, Marston and Hallifax. 

It seems a shame to end on a carping note after the label has gone to the trouble of restoring this body of rare quartet performances.

Jonathan Woolf

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Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
String Quartet in C, Op.76 No.3 ‘Emperor’; II Poco Adagio 
Roman Hoffstetter (1742-1815)
String Quartet in F major, Op.3 No.5 (attrib. Haydn): II Andante cantabile
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1759-1795)
String Quartet no.14 in G major, K387
Clarinet Quintet in A major, K581
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) 
String Quintet in C major, op.163 D956: II Adagio
Max Reger (1873-1916)
Clarinet Quintet in A, Op.146: II Vivace
String Quartet in A, Op.109: II Quasi presto
Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet in G, Op.64 No.4: II Menuetto 
String Quartet in B flat Op.76 No.4: III Menuetto
Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799)
String Quartet in B flat, Kr192: II Andante
String Quartet in E flat, Kr195: II Menuetto
Roman Hoffstetter
String Quartet in F major, Op.3 No.5 (attrib. Haydn): II Andante cantabile
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
String Quartet in D minor, K421: III Menuetto
String Quartet in B flat, K458: II Menuetto
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)  
String Quartet no.5 in A major, Op.18 No.5: II Menuetto III. Andante cantabile con variazioni
Franz Schubert
String Quartet in D minor, D810 ‘Death and the Maiden’: III Scherzo
String Quartet in G, D887: III Scherzo 
Bonus tracks: Wittenberg String Quartet, Anker recordings 1913
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1759-1795)
String Quartet no.14 in G major, K387: IV Molto allegro
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)  
String Quartet no.5 in A major, Op.18 No.5: II Menuetto III. Andante cantabile con variazioni
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
String Quartet in E flat, Op.12: II Canzonetta