Ludwig Thuille: The String Quartets
Champs Hill Records continues its survey of the neglected music of Ludwig Thuille with a new recording of his String Quartets Nos 1 & 2, performed by the Allegri Quartet.
Leader Ofer Falk describes in the booklet how he came to know Thuille's music through a chance encounter with a score for one of the Quintets (which the Allegri Quartet have recorded for Champs Hill Records, available on CHRCD002) - music left behind in a piano stool given to a friend.
Ofer says: 'Here was a true masterpiece. A creation by a previously unknown (at least to us) yet masterful composer at the height of his prowess. The style was late romantic. The structure was of the grandest of scales, yet traditional and flawlessly constructed. The harmonic language had elements of Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner, but to our ears it most resembled the music (early to mid period) of Richard Strauss.'
The Allegri Quartet are Britain's oldest chamber group, as they celebrate their 60th anniversary. 'The current line-up plays with elegance and cleanness of detail. Avoiding heavy gesture in favour of nimble energy' Fiona Maddocks Independent on Sunday - June 2013
Born in Bolzano (Bozen), capital of Southern Tirol, Ludwig Thuille lived and created in fin de si'cle Munich and was one of the leading forces in pre World-War I Germany. His operas were successfully performed in central opera houses from Moscow to New York; his vocal and instrumental pieces were often performed in Europe's main concert venues; His treatise on harmony (Harmonielehre) became a standard textbook throughout Europe and many of the continent's musicians were brought up on Thuille's harmonic thoughts and conceptions.
- Sleeve Notes
Though a German, in fact a Bavarian, composer Ludwig Wilhelm Andreas Maria Thuille was born in Bolzano (Bozen) in Southern Tyrol. At the age of six, following the death of his mother, he entered the Benedictine Monastery of Kremsm'nster in Upper Austria, which had a strong musical tradition: here he sang as a choirboy and received a basic musical as well as general education. In 1876, by which time he had also lost his father, Thuille was invited to stay in Innsbruck with Pauline Nagiller, widow of the composer Matth'us Nagiller. In Innsbruck he continued his studies with Nagiller's successor as conductor of the Innsbruck Musikverein, the respected composer-pianist and pedagogue Josef Pembaur the Elder (1848-1923), who had studied with Bruckner. (Later, Thuille would be the teacher of Pembaur's son, Josef II, who also became a composer.)
It was in Innsbruck in 1877 that Thuille first met Richard Strauss, three years his junior (the Nagillers and the Strausses were acquaintances). This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. In 1879 Thuille moved to Strauss's home city of Munich, where they both attended the Akademie der Tonkunst as students; Thuille studied composition with the celebrated Josef Rheinberger and completed his degree in 1882 with the highest marks (and a public performance of his Piano Concerto). It was also in 1882 that he first met Alexander Ritter, the ardent proselytiser for the music of Wagner, who was also a friend of Strauss; Thuille would later acknowledge that Ritter was responsible for turning his attention towards opera and music-drama. In 1885 Thuille and Ritter both followed Strauss to Meiningen, where he had achieved the conductorship of the court orchestra in succession to Hans von B'low; and after a succession of teaching posts, Thuille went on in 1890 to become professor of theory and composition at the Munich Akademie der Tonkunst (in succession to Rheinberger). It was there that he
became the teacher of Ernest Bloch, Walter Braunfels, Henry Hadley, Hermann Abendroth and Paul von Klenau, among others.
At the dawn of the 20th century Thuille was certainly considered a significant figure, mainly on the strength of his six operas; after his early death, from a heart attack, in 1907 he continued to be respected as a theorist, on account of his widely-used Harmonielehre written in collaboration with Rudolf Louis and published in the year of Thuille's death. However, virtually his only work to survive in the general repertoire has been his genial Sextet for piano and wind, one of the few ornaments of a genre not over-endowed with programming choices. In fact unlike many of his contemporaries Thuille continued to cultivate the chamber-music genre, and in this sense is more comparable to such composers as Reger and Pfitzner than to Strauss. Orphaned while still very young, stylistically Thuille remained more conservative than Strauss, and more concerned to maintain classical forms, though his music frequently carries a full burden of late-Romantic emotion. In addition to the sextet, his output includes two piano quintets, a superb cello sonata, an early symphony and the piano concerto: but he put most of his mature creative energies into his operas, and the bulk of the orchestral and instrumental works date from his teens or early twenties.
So it is with Thuille's music for string quartet. The quartets in A major and G major are essentially student works, though very accomplished ones of strongly and amiably melodic character. Indeed the String Quartet in A major was written at the age of 16 while Thuille was still living in Innsbruck, before he had even started studying with Rheinberger. He dedicated it to his new friend Richard Strauss, who was also at this stage putting much of his energies into chamber
music. In a letter of thanks, Strauss hailed it as 'exquisite, rich in melody, very well set and brilliantly composed in beautiful form'.
Whether at this early date Thuille could have known the two recent Op.51 string quartets by Brahms is unclear, and perhaps unlikely. Certainly the A major Quartet harks back to earlier models. Indeed the four-movement work is in its general stance distinctly old-fashioned even for 1878: though not quite a pastiche, it's a work in which the example of Haydn, and perhaps some early Beethoven, is predominant. Its phraseology and forms are approximately classical, the melodic interest tends to be concentrated in the first violin, and the harmonic language holds few surprises. It's not without some individual character, and it's certainly fluently-written and entirely agreeable to listen to. The general mellifluousness recalls Schubert and Mendelssohn, and possibly conservative elder contemporaries like Franz or Ignaz Lachner; but the result is that we hear a gifted but very young composer composing a string quartet according to the best classical models. It's notable that the young Thuille does not go out of his way to compose elaborate transitions between sections, but tends to move directly from one to the next; and the endings of his movements are laconic, without formal codas or only very brief ones.
The opening Allegro moderato movement is in a near-textbook sonata form, with a repeat of the exposition, but the material, while of rather archaic cut for its time, has a freshness and lyrical appeal that is immediately attractive. The development section, which modulates quite widely through a range of keys ' even travelling as far from the main tonality as B flat minor ' is neatly and resourcefully handled, and the recapitulation is not quite orthodox, as the
opening subject is substantially varied on its return. A final structural surprise is the very brief coda, which brings the movement to a peaceful close.
The slow movement, a fairly short piece in A minor, starts off with a repeated theme of some pathos; it is rather like a miniaturized version of a Beethoven Adagio melody. This is developed and decorated towards a contrasting central section in A major, more hymn-like and positive in feeling. The minor-key material then returns, with further decoration. A cheerful scherzo in E major follows, with a hint of a country dance. There is a more pensive trio section in E minor before the da capo of the scherzo.
The finale, marked Quasi Presto, returns us to A major and is another sonata-form design. It begins with a forthright, optimistic theme and moves to a more lyrical second subject. In many ways this is the most inventive of the four movements, both in variety of texture and rhythmic pointing, and in the technical demands made on the performers, with plenty of caprice and wit in the way the material is handled. The widely modulating development arrives at a recapitulation in which, as in the first movement, the opening theme is quite varied, the stability of the design being reasserted when the second subject, originally presented in E, returns in the tonic A major. Even here there is no real coda, just a decisive final cadence.
Thuille's unfinished String Quartet in G major of two years later (the score is dated 18 February 1881, while he was still a pupil of Rheinberger) already marks a considerable advance. He thinks in broader, more ample paragraphs and integrates the various elements with much more subtlety, into an altogether richer quartet texture. We do not know why Thuille abandoned the work after completing three perfectly good movements. Whatever the reason, the three extant movements '
which last about as long as the four of the A major Quartet ' are much more sophisticated and ambitious, and display a wider and more up-to-date range of influences, notably Mendelssohn and Schumann and, naturally enough, Brahms. The big Allegro first movement ' another sonata structure with a repeated exposition ' is especially impressive, with a much wider range of string textures and quite a complex architecture. Again, its chief appeal is lyrical rather than dramatic, but a rhythmically alert, even march-like second subject varies the flow expertly.
The fact that the second movement is titled 'Minuet' might suggest a lapse into archaism, but in fact Thuille reinterprets the ancient form in much more contemporary terms: the main theme is actually a spritely variation of the preceding movement's opening subject, with rustic drones in the bass. The trio section has something of the character of a songful serenade, with fragments of the minuet theme still present in the accompaniment. The intensely lyrical Andante slow movement, in C major, has a warmth and melodic grace that already point towards the composer of the famous Sextet. The way that the rapt mood is sustained throughout as if in a continuous breath seems like something new in Thuille's output. In sheer quality it is perhaps the finest movement in either of the quartets, making it all the more regrettable that Thuille never finished this G major work.
Thuille's two quartets were eventually published in the 1990s, but the present CD includes the premiere recording of his still-unpublished Quartett-Satz, performed from the manuscript supplied by the Munich State Library. Chronologically this
falls between the two quartets: like the A major Quartet it was written in Innsbruck, in 1879, and it too is in A major. This 'quartet-movement' is a fully- fledged sonata-Allegro that could have become the first movement of another string quartet, but for whatever reason ' perhaps he was thinking of the great Schubert C minor Quartettsatz of 1820 ' Thuille left it as a stand-alone work. As a piece of composition it is on a much more ambitious scale than the A major Quartet's first movement, and in quality the music easily challenges comparison with the G major Quartet. Already the continuity between sections and paragraphs is handled in an altogether more masterly fashion, and the textures are far more rich and resourceful. Here yet again lyricism predominates, with an opening melody that could almost be by Schubert, a livelier dotted-rhythm figure and a number of subsidiary ideas that ' unlike the earlier work ' do seem to reflect a Brahmsian influence. As in the two quartets, Thuille repeats his exposition; but the development, largely based on the opening theme and the dotted-rhythm idea, is thoughtful, elegiac, even at times mysterious, and leads naturally, with a sense of real inevitability, into a recapitulation which is itself much varied, culminating in a short but satisfying coda. Altogether this is a beautiful piece that was well worth rediscovering.
- Press Reviews
... the Allegri's perfectly proportioned performance."
- The Guardian
"... charm and personality in this fine recording by the Allegri Quartet." "This is charming music, exquisitely played by the Allegri Quartet.
- Sinfini "...affectionate performances and stylistically apt ones from the Allegri, characteristically well recorded in the Music Room, Champs Hill."
- MusicWeb International "...memorably captured by the Allegri's gleaming precision and affectionate poise."
- BBC Music Magazine
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