Bernhard Molique’s Surprising String Quartets

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MOLIQUE: String Quartets: Op. 42 in B-flat; Op. 44 in A minor / Mannheimer Streichquartett / CPO 777632-2

I seriously doubt that there are more than a couple of hundred people in the entire world, mostly chamber musicians, who have even heard of, let alone heard, the music of Wilhelm Bernhard Molique (1802-1869), a musician of Alsatian ancestry who was considered a child prodigy and who wrote in a style very similar to that of Mendelssohn. This, as it turns out, is the last of a series of four CDs dedicated to his eight published string quartets by the Mannheimer Streichquartett, but the first I’ve been able to hear.

The comparison with Mendelssohn is certainly apt. Although these are not highly adventurous works, they are not predictable, mundane, or copycat music, either, all of which the early-to-mid 19th century was rife with. Moilique’s father, Christian, was apparently multi-talented, playing the piano, violin and bassoon with equal skill: in fact, he played both violin and bassoon in the town orchestra, and taught his son Bernhard the first two instruments. The younger Molique also received some training from Louis Spohr when he visited his town in 1815. When Bernhrd was but 14, his father moved the family to Munich where King Maximilian I personally placed the boy’s training in the hands of court violinist Pietro Rovelli. Thus did he receive a pretty good musical education despite not coming from the wealthiest or best-connected of families.

Listening to Molique’s music, particularly as played by this highly skilled quartet, is an interesting, bracing experience. The Mannheimer Quartet assume the more straightforward, less rhetorical style common to most string quartets in Europe since the arrival of the Berg Quartet in the 1970s, and at least in Molique’s case this seems to be all to the good as it tightens the style and reveals the structure of his quartets with wonderful clarity. There are moments here of old-school elegance à la Haydn, but Haydn is not so bad a model, is he? Moreover, Molique came up with interesting themes, he knew how to develop and dovetail them, and for the most part the music stays busy because he had an excellent command of counterpoint (not always as easy a skill to develop as you may think). The liner notes indicate that the opening “Allegro vivace” is patterned after the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Quartet Op. 44 No. 2, but the tribute is not all-pervasive and Molique soon moves into his own territory, using “forceful semiquaver chords and a descending string of quavers in the first violin,” to quote the booklet. Even the slow movement of his quartets have a wonderful sense of movement in them, in the case of the Op. 42 in the form of coruscating eighth notes played by the cello. And just listen to the dance-like last movement, with its somewhat syncopated rhythms. How lively, and how enjoyable to listen to!

In the Op. 44 Quartet, Molique focuses on the semitone as his primary interval, but that is merely a technicality. I really liked the way Molique works his way around in a minor key; despite this, he retains his bracing tempos and wonderful “busyness” in the dialogue between the instruments. Listen, for instance, in the first movement to the way the cello, viola and second violin swirl around like busy bees while the first violin plays alone for a period of time. I also liked the way he employed sharp down-bow attacks in certain passages to maintain a rhythmic edge in his music. The surprisingly short slow movement in B-flat major (three minutes) flows directly into the last movement, now in A major. This, too, has a dance-like quality to it, but more of a courtly dance than a rustic one.

By and large, Molique appears to have been a good composer whose music was worth reviving. I recommend this CD to all those who enjoy good quality chamber music from the Romantic era.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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