Józef Elsner String Quartets Worth Exploring

Józef Elsner was one of the most important composers in early 19th Century Poland. He wrote 38 operas, eight symphonies, over 70 masses, and oratorios, dozens of chamber works, and more. Yet he’s remembered for one thing: he was Fredrick Chopin’s piano teacher.

This release helps remove Elsner from his famous pupil’s shadow. The Op. 8 string quartets were composed around 1796, placing them more in the Classical rather than Romantic era.

They’re interesting works. Elsner is crediting with incorporating Polish folk music into his work, but that would come later. These quartets all use the same language as Haydn and Mozart.

Although all three quartets are about the same length, they vary in structure. Quartet No. 1 in C major has but two movements, the second being a theme and variations. Elsner’s use of materials reminded me strongly of Haydn.

Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major has four short movements. The mood here is lighter, with Elsner leaning more towards Mozart.

Quartet No. 3 in D minor reminded me most of Beethoven’s early quartets. Perhaps it was the minor key that made the work sound heavier and more serious than the other two. It has a three-movement structure, of which the first is the most complex.

Although the music is interesting, I found this a difficult recording to listen to. The Equilibrium String Quartet performs on period instruments. I’m not opposed to period instruments. I think they do require additional work to sound pleasant.

I’m not exactly what fell sort for me — the instruments, how they were played, or the way they were recorded. Whatever the cause, I thought the ensemble sounded very thin. The violins had a nasal quality that seemed especially harsh in exposed passages.

I did determine that Elsner is a composer I would like to hear more of. Especially if performed with modern instruments.

Józef Elsner: String Quartets. Op. 8
Equilibrium String Quartet
Accord ACD257
World Premiere Recording

 

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