“GEORG CHRISTOPH WAGENSEIL: Six Quartets for Low Strings” = Sonata No. 3 in C Major, “Suite des pieces”; Sonata No. 2 in F Major; Sonata No. 4 in A Major; Sonata No. 6 in G Major; Sonata No. 5 in B Major; Sonata No. 1 in D Major – Piccolo Concerto Wien – Accent ACC 24242 (2 discs), 65:02, 69:54 [Distr. by Albany] (10/10/13) ****:
These six quartets (or sonatas) by G. C. Wagenseil (1715–1777) are fascinating—more in a historical sense than a musical sense, though they are pleasant pieces and then some. First, as Helga Scholz-Michelitsch writes in her notes to the recording, they were apparently written in 1764, around the time Haydn produced his Opus 1 and 2 String Quartets, all of which are in five movements after the fashion of divertimenti and cassations. However, Wagenseil’s quartets are in four movements, which was soon to become the standard configuration. Scholz-Michelitsch suggests that the composer wanted his works to be associated with this new standard. On the other hand, like Haydn’s earliest quartets, these pieces are light and undemanding, having the “feel” of the divertimento or serenade. None of the six, for example, is in a minor key.
Then there’s the matter of the scoring—for low strings. The manuscript indicates that the quartets can be played either by three cellos and double bass or by two violas, cello, and double bass, which is how Piccolo Concerto Wien chooses to render them, resulting in what is tantamount to “a classical string quartet sounding an octave lower.” Again, Wagenseil seems content to straddle the fence between string quartet and divertimento. Also, two of the quartets, IV and VI, are cast in the form of the old-fashioned sonata da chiesa, with movements alternating slow-fast-slow-fast rather than the more usual fast-slow-fast-fast. Some of Haydn’s early symphonies follow this pattern, though he abandoned it by 1770. So Wagenseil’s quartets, like the composer himself, are very much transitional, a bridge between the style galant and the Classical style, with some backward glances to the Baroque as well.
As I say, this is attractive if not particularly profound music. Perhaps the single most memorable movement is the Larghetto of Sonata No. 1, which alternates between a rather mournful minor key and a much more hopeful major-key response. There’s a certain theatrical quality about it, reminding us that Wagenseil was a noted opera composer in his day. Incidentally, Piccolo Concerto Wien end their recorded program with this first quartet, seeming to indicate that they hold it in the highest regard. Since Wagenseil headed his collection with the piece, he probably did too; he wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last composer to put his best foot forward.
While Wagenseil is better known for his contributions to the early symphony than to the string quartet, students of eighteenth-century music in general and the string quartet in particular will certainly want to hear this music. For others it will be less mandatory, perhaps, but it is elegant, well-turned music that should appeal to anyone who enjoys J. C. Bach or early Haydn. The performances by Piccolo Concerto Wien are both affectionate and astute, while the sound captured in an Austrian church adds just the right amount of bloom. Warmly recommended!