The Hugo Wolf Quartet at the National Gallery
Wednesday, February 6, 2008 at 09:18AM
Stephen Brookes

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • February 5, 2008 

The Hugo Wolf Quartet
It's an age-old question: Why spend an evening listening to Schubert string quartets when you could be at a bar, screaming at the television? But for the thin crowd who skipped the Super Bowl on Sunday night and made it down to the Hugo Wolf Quartet's recital at the National Gallery of Art, the rewards were every bit as dramatic as the Giants' win.

This relatively young, Vienna-based quartet has been generating a lot of buzz lately for its intensely characterful performances of the standard and not-so-standard repertoire. The buzz seems warranted: Opening with Schubert's precocious Quartet in E-flat, D. 87 (written when he was all of 16), they dug into it with utter seriousness, revealing unsuspected gravity in a work that, to these ears, has always sounded distinctly callow.

The composer Hugo Wolf (for whom the group, obviously, is named) is best known for his moody songs, but the "Italian Serenade" from 1887 may be one of his most playful works, full of deft irony and subtle jokes. Oddly and a bit disappointingly, the Wolf Quartet gave it a dark, unsmiling reading -- beautifully executed (despite the detail-smearing acoustics of the West Garden Court), but rather low on charm.

It didn't matter; it was all prelude to the real event of the evening, Schubert's stupendous Quartet in G, D. 887, one of the great (but too rarely heard) works of the chamber music repertoire. Schubert wrote it near the end of his life, and it stares into his impending death with almost frightening intensity; there's an elemental, sweeping power to it that few quartets can handle. But the group played it magnificently -- a bold and gripping performance, led by the superb violinist Sebastian Gürtler.

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