Wranitzky String Quartets CPO 5554662

Paul Wranitzky (1756-1808)
String Quartet in G major, Op 32 No 4
String Quartet in G major, Op 2 No 2
String Quartet in D minor, Op 49
Almaviva Quartet (Éva Borhi (violin), Péter Barczi (violin), Werner Saller (viola), Melanie Beck (cello))
rec. 2020, Kaisersaal, Basel, Switzerland
cpo 555 466-2 [65]

Paul Wranitzky, born the same year as Mozart, was renowned in his day but then largely and unjustly forgotten, partly due to unfriendly criticism. (Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl panned his music long after the composer’s death.) He wrote 54 string quartets, 18 string quintets, 9 string trios, 24 symphonies, solo concertos, divertissements, other chamber works, no fewer than 15 ballets, 15 incidental pieces and 11 operas. I came upon his music on vinyl during the four years I spent in Prague in the late 1970s. The Czech label Supraphon was very good at releasing recordings of musicians popular in Bohemia, when Mozart lived and worked for a time in Prague. Think Brixi, Rössler-Rossetti, the Bendas, Stamitz, Mysliveček, Linek, Dušek, Tůma and Černohorsky. Very little of their music had ever penetrated the recording industry in the UK.

The booklet notes recognise that Wranitzky’s operas, other than his very successful first, Oberon, König der Elfen, were of uneven quality. On his instrumental music, however, Riehl’s flagrantly devastating comments were decidedly unfair and untrue. Some critics love holding a composer’s reputation in their hands, and seem to enjoy the power to destroy a career. For example, Irving Kolodin described Korngold’s violin concerto as ‘more corn than gold’. The epithet has stuck for seven decades, but the work has been lovingly received ever since, while the critic is deservedly forgotten.

What strikes one on hearing Wranitzky’s string quartets is how joyful they are, rather like Haydn’s quartets. The booklet characterises the quartet Op 34 No 4 as operatic, but I find such comparisons unhelpful. The music can very well make its own statement. The listener will be satisfied with its charm, and with joyful references to folklore, especially in the energetic concluding Rondo. Even the more serious Adagio keeps the overall relaxed atmosphere.

The Almaviva Quartet, so the booklet says, carefully selected the quartets for inclusion here. They readily admit to falling in love with several others, too. These three give an idea of Wranitzky’s progress as a quartet composer: there is an early, middle and late quartet. The early one shows that he had learned much already, and had a well-developed facility to surprise and delight. The middle movement is, it seems, uncharacteristically melancholy. The All’ ongharese finale is as dancelike as one would expect with such marking.

The last piece here is the longest and most complex of the three. The booklet notes suggest that its dynamism holds parallels with the music of Wranitzky’s friend Beethoven. If the two composers were indeed friends, Beethoven must have looked kindly upon Wranitzky’s compositional skills. He was known for speaking his mind on other composers’ abilities. We know for sure that Wranitzky was Haydn’s and Beethoven’s preferred conductor of their works, even if they could do a creditable job themselves.

The quartet, the most serious of the three, still has some truly beautiful melodies. It would be a perfect listen for those who want to unwind at the end of a taxing day. There seems to be a nod to Papa Haydn towards the conclusion of this quartet, with not one but two false endings. One first feels let down by a lacklustre ending, only to be led to another before the true one brings the satisfaction of a worthy closure for this substantial work.

This short survey is a good introduction to the chamber music of a somewhat marginalised composer. One can expect that the Almaviva Quartet – who play with reverence for the music and an obvious love for it – will explore further the composer’s body of string quartets. There is certainly plenty to go at.

Steve Arloff

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