String Quartet in D minor (LaSalle Quartet)*
Wolf's early quartet is headed “You must renounce, renounce”. His texts (like Schumann's) refer to contexts. The words are Faust's, when renouncing life and love. He had just attracted the devil, and finally lost his soul. Wolf had just caught syphilis, and finally lost his mind. The first act of each played with fire, and the consequence was sheer hell. In Goethe this is insulated by great art. What we hear from the singed Wolf is a yelp of pain and dismay. Not even that involuntary utterance is quite his own. The prognosis (I: Grave) and the prescription (II: Resolut) are compounded from the renunciation and defiance of late Beethoven; the lofty tones of redemption through suffering (III: Langsam) are audibly Wagnerian; the return to pristine innocence (IV: Sehr lebhaft) is transparently Schubertian. Only in the gay and almost insolent irony of that finale's first subject is Wolf himself again (or so he thought).
At least this interpretation explains the unusual sequence (as in the first authentic score, Wolf-Gesellschaft 1960) and the dating of the movements (1879, 1878, 1880, 1884). However, if you are attuned to such a programme, the LaSalle Quartet's fine performance may sound atmospheric in the wrong sense, almost like interference with the music's meaning. Wolf's gritting and grinding is turned to polish and precision. The cover-picture is an apt illustration; four dress-shirts don't equal one hair-shirt. But they certainly make an immaculate quartet; and if you approach this work as absolute music, you wilt find that this playing approaches absolute perfection.
The Musical Times, Aug. 1970 (p. 813) © the estate of eric sams