Woldemar Bargiel – String Quartets Fall Between Mendelssohn and Brahms

Even in his lifetime, Woldemar Bargiel never quite escaped the shadow of his half-sister and his brother-in-law — Clara and Robert Schumann. At an early point in his career, Schumann rated Bargeil’s chamber music higher than that of newcomer Johannes Brahms. The rankings soon changed.

Nevertheless, Bargiel was a talented composer, carefully crafting and refining his works over long periods of time. This release features his four string quartets, plus his string octet.

Bargiel’s first string quartet was completed in 1848 as a graduation piece. It’s a fairly simple work, owing much to Mendelssohn in texture and melodic contour.

His Second String Quartet in D minor finished a year later, is a more fully developed quartet. Here the inspiration seems to be Beethoven. The work carefully develops its motifs with some richly dark harmonies and skillful modulations.

The album leads with the String Quartet No. 3 in A minor, Op. 15b, as well it should. This is a work by a full-fledged composer (rather than a student). Bargiel’s style sits somewhere between Mendelssohn and Schumann without sounding derivative. His melodies are fully formed, and the handling of the ensemble is more self-assured.

His last quartet of 1888 shows even more development. The Quartet in D minor, Op. 47 is a big, brawny work that reminded me very strongly of Brahms. It’s a beautifully expressive work. The lyrical melodies have plenty of substance for the players to dig into. And the Orpheus Quartet does just that.

The Orpheus Quartet performs with an emotive power that makes these compositions sparkle. Their reading of the fourth quartet I found particularly exciting.

Also included is Bargiel’s String Octet, Op. 15a. Inspired by Mendelssohn’s octet, Bargeil’s work is a somewhat ambitious work. Although both octets have 30-minute playing times, Bargeil’s has three movements to Mendelssohn’s four.

Bargiel made his octet an expansive work, emulating Mendelssohn’s octet in energy, but looking to Beethoven for thematic development and structural balance. It works quite well.

In the end, Schumann ranked Brahms above Bargiel. It’s a fair assessment. Bargiel synthesized his influences, while Brahms used them as jumping off points. But still, listening to these works over a century later, I think Bargiel had something interesting to say.

Woldemar Bargiel: Complete String Quartets & String Octet
Orpheus Quartet
CPO 555 095
2 CD Set

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