LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN – String Quartet No. 12

Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer, probably the most famous in western classical music history. He wrote 16 string quartets. These works are highly regarded, especially the ‘Late’ Quartets, Nos. 12 to 16. I previously discussed No. 15 in May, 2016.

SQ No. 12 is quite orchestral in conception, especially the first movement. Beethoven uses the same three major chords that can be found in ‘three-chord songs’ to fashion a stunning introduction to the piece. The chords are played sustained, in an orchestral fashion, with powerful voicings, and their occurrences are interspersed with many lilting melodies. The first melodic section starts slowly but develops quite a rhythm. Following another round of chords the first melodic section is repeated. These sections are played in and out of tempo and can sound quite melancholy until they lift themselves up. A return to the opening chordal passage occurs twice and each time it proceeds into some wistful melodies, together with some strong rhythmic dynamics. There is a recapitulation of the first melody several times. From there it leads into some new melodic material. Melodies recur, to be reshaped and reharmonised. The ending comes gently. There is some beautiful writing to be found here.

The next movement, which is an adagio, forms the emotional heart of the whole quartet. My review version runs for 16 minutes. It opens ever so quietly and moves into a longing melody. This mood is sustained for around four minutes. It is then developed into a new passage, while still remaining restrained. The mood moves very slowly into a walking tempo and comes to life. Playful melodies abound, sometimes with a hint of darker material. It is a process of constant development. Now the tempo pauses and we are transported back into a longing passage. This is splendid melancholic music. A key change introduces a new, optimistic mood with a rhythmic accompaniment from the viola and cello. An ascending motif is established and the music slowly becomes louder. Now the feeling drops back into a sparse melodic section. It is quietly majestic for a while and then proceeds to a slightly measured joyful passage. There is a brief pause and the peace returns with a gentle cello motif to support the violins as they lead the music to a quiet conclusion. I think this is one of the finest movements of the Late Quartets. It is very touching, filled with both drama and beauty.

The third movement begins in an upbeat manner, with a skittish theme. An underlying cello theme lays down the mood. The violins are playful, with joyous exchanges and it is dynamically very vibrant. The extended melody is wonderful, constantly turning back on itself to repeat critical moments. A change to a minor key leads into a whole new feeling. New melodies are formed and developed. Now the opening returns for a time before the cello commences a conversation. Another minor key change leads into a hurried ending. This is very positive music.

The final movement opens with a strangely vague feeling, before eventually settling into a jaunty passage. A new section emerges, very rhythmic, beginning strongly but retreating a little as it progresses. Now another melodic theme is presented and appropriate variations are developed. A further rhythmic passage restates some of the earlier material, sometimes in different ways. Things begin to get a bit excited as the violins dominate proceedings. A flurry of notes following some punctuating chords lead to the conclusion. All in all, a wonderful melodic journey can be found here.

Regarding availability, I shall basically reiterate what I wrote for SQ No. 15. Amazon has hundreds of many fine recorded performances, both of the SQ No. 12 on one CD, or for the more adventurous, a 3-CD set of all of the Late Quartets. I have two complete sets, the Vegh SQ and my perennial favourites, the Quartetto Italiano. I can also recommend the Amadeus and the Tokyo SQs. This is the kind of music of which you can have several sets. They all have something different to say about these wonderful works.

There are a plethora of versions of this quartet on Spotify and also on youtube.

Listenability: A stunning Romantic work.

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ARTHUR HONEGGER – Moving with Modernity

Swiss composer Arthur Honegger [1892-1955] wrote three string quartets between 1917 and 1937. In these three-movement works you can hear his development as he becomes aware of things going on around him.

SQ No. 1 was written in 1917. The first movement is marked appassionato which sounds promising! This is a new one, I shall add it to the Glossary. Passion it is, as the ensemble attack some strong melodies with vigour. The mood drops back and becomes lilting until the fire returns. Then follows a moment where the composer, and the ensemble, pause for breath. When they resume, the movement alternates between passion, with slightly atonal melodies, and periods of more conservative selection of notes. The energy persists until it is time to dawdle to a conclusion.

The second movement is the centrepiece of this work. It is marked adagio and runs for 13 minutes, about half the length of the quartet. This features a stunning opening, played with great feeling. The cello goes it alone until the ensemble inevitably enter. This is very slow and very quiet. There seem to be no melodies for a time, just a soundscape; my kind of music. When the melodies arrive, they are just so intangible, you are not sure whether they are melodies or just a mood. Finally after about four minutes, some form begins to emerge. There is some wonderful writing here, somewhat reminiscent of a tone poem, it is just so focussed on the delicate mood. The feeling becomes more expansive for a time but soon returns to the tranquility which persists until it totally subsides. I don’t believe I have heard a softer slow movement of this length.

The third and final movement starts off in an emphatic manner, producing quite a contrast. I am finding the first part of the movement quite dull, there just doesn’t seem to be any musical progress. I keep waiting for something to happen. Approaching the end, there is a bit of a flourish which then morphs into a gentle pastoral section which remains until the end of the movement.

There was a long gap before the second quartet was written in 1936. I am going to leave this one as the third was written just a year later, in 1937.

The third quartet opens with some atonal musings, signalling the difference in style to the first; it is considerably more modern. I’d like to call it a secretive allegro; it takes time to reveal its intentions. It eventually works its way into a vigorous, mildly atonal romp. Near the conclusion it reverts to secretive again and goes out with further furtive atonal musings.

The second movement is another adagio which is a lot more modern than that of the first quartet. A gentle atonality pervades the opening. The melodies are measured and it has a special kind of peace. The movement is more than half over before it begins to assert itself, only to return to the previous mood. Near the conclusion it barely rises above a whisper as it peters out. This is a fascinating, mesmeric movement.

The final movement opens with a walking cello while ornaments are provided by the ensemble. The mood changes into a rhythmic passage which bubbles along with slightly abstract playing from the violins. It settles into a quiet cello section leading to particularly positive ensemble work. When the impetus returns, it is sustained until the conclusion.

These pieces reveal Honegger to be open to the progress that the string quartet idiom was going through in his time. His was a measured response but there is a definite change from the first to the third quartet.

All three quartets are freely available on Amazon US and UK. Spotify has Quartets 1 and 2 and you can listen to all three of the quartets on youtube.

Listenability: Late Romantic moving towards Modernism.

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PYOTR TCHAIKOVSKY – String Quartet No. 1

Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky [1840-1893] wrote three string quartets. The composer was renowned for the use of folk melodies in his works of all styles. He even wrote and published books of folk song. I am going to discuss his First String Quartet No. 1 in D Major Opus 11, which is in four movements. The first two are moderately slow and beautiful, the last two quite brisk and energised. The work is filled with folk-like melodies.

The first movement opens with a folk-like melody on one violin. It is repeated and the other instruments gradually come in. This is a majestic moment. The harmony changes to minor and there is a soft section where the opening melody prevails again. The music builds and launches into a short, fast section. This doesn’t last and the precious mood is restored. There is a hint of a terrific melody here; I hope it comes back. There is quite a long section of melody and variations before it briefly moves into a tempo, but it doesn’t last.

This movement is filled with many endearing melodies. The violin soars above the ensemble, asking questions of it. The ensemble reply and the piece moves into a most appealing section before taking off again. Now it is racing, the call and response remain and the first violin brings the ensemble back to a sense of peace. There are now rumblings from the cello and old melodies become new again. The end is at a moderate tempo and goes out with a series of descending motifs. Assessing this movement the phrase ‘peaceful heart, gentle spirit’ (Thanks, Chico Freeman), comes to mind. It is quite beautiful.

The next movement opens with a definitely folk-sounding melody. Part of the melody is from the ancient Russian folk tune, The Volga Boatmen Song. This phrase is worked and reworked for this extended peaceful section. The music then takes up another folk-like melody and moves into tempo. A harmonic change allows for further development of the basic melody. Now the ‘Volga’ theme returns. Simple folk-like themes abound. The conclusion is a solo violin with a couple of cello notes until it fades out with two chords which resolve perfectly.

The short third movement moves into folk territory instantly with an upright, strutting rhythmic structure. The rhythm dominates this movement, with constant slight sections of straight melody, always coming back into strong rhythmic flourishes. It ends on a solo cello playing a smattering of notes.

The final movement opens at a moderate tempo, again with a simple melody. If it wasn’t so brisk it would be dance-like. This movement follows the third in its extensive use of rhythmic patterns, some quite complicated. There are also plenty of melodic interspersions. Even the cello leads a section as it weaves its way through the rhythmic patterns. Sometimes these patterns are so powerful as to be orchestral-like. A very prominent motif drives the whole last half of this movement. It is now in a different key allowing for varied melodic ideas. There are some marvellous quiet, slow melodic passages between the rhythmic offensives. Following a particularly quite section, it suddenly leaps into action and positively races to the finish line!

There is just so much contrast in these movements. This work reveals Tchaikovsky to be a fine melodist who is equally comfortable with rhythmic complexity.

This quartet is readily available. I have the three quartets on a 2-CD set together with a string sextet, Souvenir de Florence. It is by the Keller Quartet and is very reasonably priced on Amazon UK. There are over 100 versions of the complete quartets on Amazon UK and 1,000 references for his individual string quartets. These would be some of the most popular quartets in the repertoire.

As would be expected, these are on Spotify and also on youtube.

Listenability: Beautiful Romantic works.

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KAROL RATHAUS – Modern/Contemporary?

German-Austrian composer Karol Rathaus [1895-1954] wrote eight string quartets. Quartets 3, 4 and 5 are currently available. He is probably the most gentle Modern/Contemporary composer I have reviewed, although I guess you could argue Morton Feldman. They are both very different. I’m still trying to work out this Modern or Contemporary topic. The year 2000 changed everything! I’ve now elected to forget about Contemporary and will run with degrees of Modernism. This topic deserves its own post.

The third quartet contains five movements. The first begins with a plaintive, introspective melody, and a wonderful feeling; no anger here. I love the way the composer probes at the music with the melody. Nearing the conclusion, the music deepens a little. The second movement, marked sarabande, continues in the same emotional space, perhaps a little more peaceful than the previous movement. An up tempo movement follows, again with a very gentle sense of agitation. The solo cello leads into a stately, appealing section before the tempo quickens to conclude the movement. The short, slow fourth movement again occupies the emotional space that I crave. It is very understated, with an eerie sound. The final movement, while ultimately abstract, is never particularly challenging. The first violin is very busy and constantly plays games with the ensemble.

The fourth quartet has three movements. It opens with a flourish but continues in the same vein as the previous piece. This movement is very rhythmic, but there is no violence or anger here. Towards the end it breaks into a solo cello with sparse accompaniment. Quite soothing really; it belies its marking of allegro energico which I take to mean energised. The next movement is slow, perhaps a little harsher than the preceding movements. I like the soundscape it evokes; a sense of the desolate. The last movement is a bustling affair, almost sprightly. Again, atonal, but only with a minimum use of dissonance.

The fifth quartet also contains three movements. The first continues with some of the previous moods. It has a measured sense of Modernism about it. However, it is a little confronting. The same could be said of the second movement, it just has a bit more of an edge to it. The final, short movement is busy, and again, a little confronting.

These works confuse me. They are definitely atonal with a degree of Modernism. The Modernist traits of anger, chaos, agitation and aggression are not to be found here, except in a measured manner. There are some exquisite moments here. The slow passages I find particularly attractive, very introspective.

The disc I have reviewed is by the Amar Corde quartet. Not sure of the label, but it is freely available on Amazon US and UK.

Rathaus is available neither on Spotify nor youtube.

Listenability: Let’s call it tempered Modernism– fabulous just for the quiet movements!

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BELA BARTOK – String Quartet No. 1

Hungarian composer Bela Bartok [1881-1945] wrote 6 string quartets. Together with those of Shostakovich they are the most popular 20th century string quartets by far.

I am going to discuss quartet No. 1, written in 1909, which is in three movements, to be played without a break.

The opening to the first movement of this quartet is one of my favourites. In my opinion, no composer has ever said so much, with so few notes, to begin a string quartet. Some of the melody had already appeared in his Violin Concerto No. 1. Bartok’s sparse, slightly dissonant introduction is just perfect. It opens with two violins and takes its time to bring in the viola and cello. There is such warmth and abstract character here. The cello starts to assert itself until we have several slight crescendos. After a time, the dynamics cut back to the two violins. Then it is into powerful chords, first with one violin, and then two, answering the call. A new section quickly emerges, with a lyrical passage. Some more abstraction follows before it moves into a recapitulation of the first theme, which is developed, all the time retaining the dissonance. A breathtaking passage of chords follows before the music drops away to nothing.

The second movement begins in a very sparse space. The violins are playful, but Bartok-playful, which is a little cheeky. A melody develops out of this formless passage. Now the cello enters with thumping noises; the melodies continue. The feeling becomes quite intense. A solo cello passage brings the mood back to lyrical again. There are some crescendos but the composer keeps them in check. Again the solo cello thumps us back into the lyricism. A violin in the high register takes over and we are almost back in the first movement. It is joined by the second violin to conclude the movement.

The final movement opens with a flourish, interspersed with solo cello. The violin leads into a brief pause. Then there is an intensely rhythmic passage, very dynamic. This is followed by a self-mocking passage, quite atonal; strange music. The mocking continues as a lyrical section briefly emerges, followed by some intense moments which slowly drop the dynamics. Another brief pause leads into a passage of racing tempo with spikey interjections. This movement is proving to be quite a journey through many different emotions, some sections lasting only last a few bars. An extended, jaunty dance-like passage leads into a period of brief chaos and another set of crescendos and more chaos. This is followed by another lyrical passage, which is very beautiful. This descends into chaos for one more time as we move towards a noisy conclusion on some strong chords. Brilliant quartet!

This quartet is freely available. There are over 400 sets of the complete quartets on Amazon UK. I have it by the Tokyo Quartet on 3-CDs paired with Janacek. It features the six quartets in chronological order. This cannot be accomplished on a 2-CD set due to the lengths of the individual quartets. You can have No. 1 on a number of single CD sets but as the complete sets are so reasonably priced I suggest you take a chance!

There are several versions on Spotify and many on youtube.

Listenability: Stunning early modern quartet.

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RICHARD ARNELL – String Quartets Nos. 3 & 4

British composer Richard Arnell [1917-2009] wrote six string quartets from 1940 to 1992.

Arnell’s third quartet was completed in 1945, and was thus quite an early work. It opens with a stately theme, played by all instruments in very simple harmony. The music then moves into tempo in a very positive manner. There are strong tonal melodies here. The mood relaxes a little as the first violin plays solo over a sparse accompaniment. After a time, the intensity increases and then drops into a charming melodic passage with all four instruments conversing. A jaunty passage follows with violin prominent again. Then the tempo eases a little and we have a charming pastoral section led by the violin. It continues with this mood before a loud chordal rhythm prepares us for the end which comes quickly.

The second movement is marked lento and it opens with a slow, sparse melody in the violins. This is a most alluring section. The violin melody gives way to the whole ensemble having their say, eventually leading to a rich chordal passage and back again to a sparse section. This is the music I was born to listen to. It reminds me of another British composer, Daniel Jones (reviewed August, 2016). Eventually, the music just fades into nothing. Wonderful.

The third movement opens at a sprightly tempo. It is a very British dance like theme. The tempo drops back and the ensemble play with the melody as it progresses through various rhythmic moods. This is a very dynamic movement. Nearing the end, it positively races to a conclusion.

After discussing so many composers who slip into Modernism every now and again, it’s a pleasure to hear a piece that doesn’t. This is Romanticism in 1945!

Quartet No. 4 is a one-movement work, written in 1951. It is marked allegro. The opening is a very busy theme with all instruments going full tilt! Around the one-minute mark, it cuts back considerably into a beguiling mood where the cello is prominent. It then begins to work its way back into a rhythm but is cut short with another slow, sparse passage. These sections are very appealing and there is a constant duality here; first rhythmic, then sparse. We finally reach an extended quiet section, with full chords and subtle lines from all instruments. There is some wonderful viola here. The mood starts to move towards a swash-buckling conclusion but it drops back to two instruments with an elegant passage until it fades to the end.

These quartets are conservative, rewarding works. Just a note on some of  the other quartets on the disc. No. 2 has a great slow movement. No 5 has seven movements, mostly quite short, but interesting.

Regarding availability, there is a CD, String Quartets Nos. 1 to 5 by the Tippett Quartet on both Amazon US and UK. I couldn’t find it on Spotify or youtube.

Listenability: Very late Romanticism.

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FRANZ SCHUBERT – A Late String Quartet

Franz Schubert [1797-1828] was an Austrian composer who died before his 32nd birthday. He wrote over 20 string quartets but only 15 were ever published. I was tempted to discuss his most popular quartet, No. 14, known as Death and the Maiden but the overuse of it in the world has made me all DATMed-out. I decided to go with No. 15 in G Major which has a posthumous opus number, but was written in 1826.

The work opens with a series of flourishes before settling into the merest hint of a melody. Ever so slowly the full melody is brought to the fore. The opening flourish returns, this time with a reworked repeat of the exposition, and not for the last time! Then follows several sections where the opening melody is presented in various ways, ranging from the serene to the hectic. Some of the writing is orchestral-like. The whole movement appears to be a set of harmonised versions of the exposition, at different levels of intensity, together with brief interludes between the variations. Each time the melody comes back in a new and exciting way. There is a secondary theme that is a variation of the exposition which is also reworked several times. A loud variation concludes the movement. This is magnificent music making! The piece has run for 15 minutes, but more on that later.

A most genteel melody introduces the second, andante movement. After a time, a variation is introduced, then it is back to the exposition. A loud section follows, which develops into the sound of quivering violins. The volume returns, followed by a period of calm where the theme reappears at a leisurely pace. There are constant changes of key during these many variations and some of the writing is again orchestral. Now the music breaks into a tempo and an extended delightful melodic passage ensues. The music fades to an end.

The third movement begins at a sparkling tempo, all of the instruments are very busy, but the violins dominate. This passage is more rhythmic than melodic. A new mood appears without the rhythm; it is very conversational and quite charming. The texture thickens and leads into a most attractive section. A key change extends the mood. Then we are back to the opening theme, with plenty of energy which races to an ending.

The final movement begins at a jaunty allegro tempo, which continues in a rhythmic fashion for most of the piece. A simple, rapid melody dominates proceedings. The accompaniment is strong here. There are alternating passages at half tempo where the melodies change their pace and intensity for lighter colours, contrasting with the stronger rhythmic passages all around them. The piece fades, then ends with two huge chords.

Just something about the first movement. I reviewed the Melos Quartet version which runs for 15 minutes. I also have the Quartetto Italiano version which runs for 22 minutes! The reason for this discrepancy is that the Italiano observe the ‘exposition repeats’ which are instructions by the composer to repeat basic themes. It is quite common for string quartets not to perform all of these.

It has been quite an intense experience discussing this work; its orchestral scope is just so powerful. To me the centrepiece of the quartet is in the first two movements. It’s a marvel how Schubert can present and re-present the melodic material in so many beautiful ways. They are both stunning movements. Words cannot do justice to the music and I feel that I have have merely skimmed over the surface of this magnificent piece.

Amazon UK has over 400 versions of this quartet. I can recommend the Italiano on a 2-CD recording, The Last Four Quartets, which includes Death and the Maiden and a famous single movement work, Quartettsatz, all for an incredibly reasonable price.

It is also available on Spotify and youtube.

Listenability: Magnificent early Romantic composition.

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ERNST KRENEK – String Quartet No. 4

Ernst Krenek  [1900-1991] was an Austrian, later American, composer of Czech origin (Thanks, Wiki). He wrote eight string quartets. The fourth quartet, written over a period in the mid-1920s, was a transitional one in his output. It was the last quartet composed before he completely changed to a serial-based approach. It contains seven movements and is therefore a longish piece, but some of the movements are very short.

The work opens with a catchy solo cello motif that could have been written in the 1980s on a synthesiser; such a wonderful tone and first impression. A spacious melody emerges out of the motif. A slight change of mood briefly reintroduces the cello motif, and then a significantly different melody. There are chunks of harmony, very powerfully put as the cello motif returns for a third, and then a fourth time. A solo violin interrupts the flow and after a time, all players join in with a strong ending. This is a crackerjack movement!

The second movement, which is quite short, opens quietly with harmonious violins; slightly dissonant but sublime. Eventually the other instruments have their say and build to a slight crescendo ending on a dissonant chord.

The third movement is even shorter, just two minutes. The violins open again, playfully engaging with each other. It is nearly the end by the time the cello can be heard. The melodies become more dramatic and it ends on a quiet solo violin phrase.

The fourth movement is by far the longest and is marked adagio. It opens with a mood of such sweet serenity. The violins share melodic duties with the cello. This occasionally develops into a tempo, interspersed with sombre moments. There is little or no pulse in this music, it must be inferred. Finally a new sense of purpose is felt as the ensemble work as one into a powerful, but still slow, introspective mood. The dynamic drops back and we are in a wonderful soundscape. The music briefly pauses and the violins lament, first two, then back to one. A solo violin line concludes the movement. It leaves me with a feeling of ‘Where have I been the last ten minutes?’ It’s just so moving.

The next movement is again very short and takes off at a gallop. The cello pulses and the violins dance. Suddenly the violins are solo again and establish a new structure. The cello returns and we have a motif similar to the opening movement. The violins spar before they are joined by the cello and musical games are played to a conclusion. For two and a half minutes, this is an alluring mood.

Movement six is shorter still! A solo violin sets the mood with little accompaniment. The viola has a say in the melody but this music is not going anywhere. It is very quiet and drops to a whisper as a violin plays a sustained long tone to finish.

The final movement begins in a very rhythmic fashion. There are some allusions to Spain here as a result of Krenek hearing some Spanish records at the time! This is joyful music, replete with strong rhythms and melodies to go with it. It is not complicated, it just rollicks along. There is a change in mood as the violin leads the ensemble into a more gentle space. The Spanish tinge remains but the mood is sparse. Two violins bounce ideas off each other until we are left with one violin to conclude. What a strange ending to a marvellous string quartet!

I shall be discussing Krenek again subject to availability. His work is starting to become harder to find. I have this piece as part of a complete 4-CD set by the Sonare-Quartett. This is still available but fairly expensive. At time of writing, SQ No. 4 is available, paired with No. 6, at Amazon UK.

There are also three of his string quartet CDs on Spotify and many of his quartets on youtube.

Listenability: I hadn’t listened to this in quite a while and it was a lot more conservative than I expected. Great music.

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KENNETH FUCHS – SQ No. 2 – Where Have You Been

American composer Kenneth Fuchs [born 1956] has written five string quartets thus far. His music is basically tonal with some modern passages.

SQ No. 2 is titled Where Have You Been and contains five named movements.

Heart of Darkness opens with a solo cello and occasional interjections from the ensemble. There is a loud flourish and a period of rhythm which leads into a passage for solo violin. The follows a period of dissonance before the solo violin returns. It’s very busy until it drops back to a pizzicato cello, and a fade to the end.

The Other Side commences with a rather timid rhythmic motif. A pastoral melody emerges from the violin and the key changes. The violin continues on its way into the upper register together with the second violin. The viola and cello join in and maintain the pastoral feeling. The cello has a solo passage; after a while interjections occur. The tempo ceases and the violin returns to its high register. A gentle accompaniment concludes the movement.

The Marriage opens in a serious tone before the violins take over with an alluring duet. This eventually recalls the serious opening. This passage is a little confronting and concludes the movement.  It only runs for just under three minutes.

They Are Not Heard at All starts with a solo violin. The music covers the whole tonal range of the instrument. I keep wondering when the other instruments will enter. At about two minutes there is a bit of movement but the solo violin continues. Eventually, some accompaniment occurs but the violin continues to be extremely dominant. This is turning into a solo violin piece with occasional very sparse statements from the other members. Taken as a whole, the violin investigates many moods as it journeys through the piece.

Where Have You Been has a rhythmic pulse from the start. An exquisite violin melody occurs but is soon discarded for a conversation between the violin and noisy interjections from the ensemble. Nearing the end we have a positive mood change as the piece makes for a hurried exit.

There are two things worth mentioning about this work as a whole. Firstly, it contains so much violin to so little ensemble playing. Secondly, there are many of what I would call interjections that seem to turn up at random, usually totally destroying the nature of the violin mood. Taken together, these two features leave me feeling a little dissatisfied.

This work is still very interesting and I intend to revisit this composer again. He’s definitely worth persevering with. Some listeners might find the interjections angry. Personally, I feel they are just a little miffed 🙂

Regarding availability, Quartets Nos. 2, 3 & 4 can be found by the American SQ on Amazon US and UK. No. 5 is available on the Naxos label. It can also be found on Spotify. No sign of No. 1!

There are many Kenneth Fuchs’ quartets on youtube, but unfortunately not No. 2. As I said, it is on Spotify.

Listenability: Interesting, if a little unsatisfying.

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JOSEF FOERSTER – String Quartets Nos. 2 & 4

Josef Foerster [1859-1951] was a Czech Romantic composer who wrote five string quartets and several pleasing one movement works for quartet. I am going to discuss quartets 2 & 4, both of which are in three movements.

Quartet No. 2 opens with a very delicate passage. It almost sounds like a church organ, played very quietly. It is a most sombre section, very sparse. Eventually we have movement, in waltz time. This is sustained until a new passage occurs. The violin dominates until the cello takes over, leading the ensemble into new territory. Slow at first, but building as the violin takes control again and introduces variations on a new melody. Nearing the end, the key changes and the dynamics build. After a solo cello interjection we have a most alluring brief passage to conclude with a fine example of miniaturism.

The second movement begins with a longing passage. After a time, it moves into a tempo but the longing still persists. Now the mood totally changes. A repeated chord leads into a solo violin passage. Slowly the ensemble re-enters. It starts to move forward but the longing remains. This is the centrepiece of the movement; it is sustained for quite a while. It concludes by going back to solo violin but then returns to the previous style. The cello concludes the movement, which has sustained a longing character for its entirety.

The final movement, by far the longest, opens in a wonderful, delicate setting. The solo violin is very prominent and there are multiple short fugal sections at work here. Now a rhythm takes over; more a march really. The music returns to delicate for a time until the tempo lifts. This seems to be a case of alternating moods, delicate, then rhythmic. Out of this alternation comes a new passage which doesn’t last. I feel the composer is playing with me here. Another uplifting passage develops, but again, it slows right down and develops a serious nature.

Just when you least expect it, a stunning piece of solo violin leads into a brief turmoil. This is redeveloped and sustained for a time. We are then back into a floating mood which takes on a slightly serious nature with a key change from major to minor. As the end approaches the violin is very delicate and it’s all over.

Quartet No. 4 begins with a solo violin which lasts for quite a time until all of the other instruments come in.  The opening theme is mellow in the extreme. Slightly rustic, it has a great charm about it; very measured. There is some fine melodic writing and interplay between the violins. Suddenly there is a slight change in the air. The mood becomes more thoughtful with less interplay. Now a sweeping descending violin passage brings a more sombre feeling to the piece. After a time the solo violin returns; this is a wonderful passage. This is the territory of Dvorak and I hear hints of his work scattered throughout these works. A recapitulation of the opening theme allows for an ending on a note that hangs in the air. Beautiful.

The second movement is slow. It edges forward with a violin being accompanied by a slightly rhythmic motif. This is very stately. The melody changes slightly, and the ensemble follow. This fine passage continues for a time with some variation, but always referring back to the basic motif. Now the cello has a melodic role. After a brief pause, we are into folk music territory. The violins dance above the ensemble. The cello brings about a change in the tempo, back to quite slow. You can feel the ending coming as the cello comes to the fore. The melody is engrossing as it winds down with a fade.

The final movement is an allegro and is set as a fugue which gives everyone a chance to feature. There are manifold variations here but the fugal subject persists. After a brief pause, the music regathers momentum. Now a solo violin is answered by the ensemble. The fugue subject has been swept away and the piece finishes on a hanging chord.

For anybody who likes Romantic string quartets these are fine works. There is a 2-CD set titled The Complete String Quartets by the Stamic Quartet on the Supraphon label. This is available on both Amazon US and UK.  Spotify also has the complete 2-CD set.

There is one Foerster quartet on youtube.

Listenability: A beautiful set of classic Romanticism.

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LEON KIRCHNER – An American Journey

Leon Kirchner [born 1919] was an American composer who wrote four string quartets.

The first, written in 1949 contains four movements. It opens with an slightly entropic feeling; a sort of muted chaos. It reminds me of a large city, Metropolis, a 1927 silent movie! It moves into a period of quiet solo cello, then the violins enter to complete the mood. The tempo returns, with associated string sound effects, which, to me, make for the sound of an urban landscape.

The second movement opens with pizzicato and strange, distant sounds, coming from the violins. It brings to mind the early hours in a vast city, with things going on in back alleys and mysterious places. This is a very alluring, mildly atonal scene. It has no forward impetus, just sketches of a murky mood.

The third movement opens with a violin flourish before moving into a tempo, no stasis here. This piece just won’t settle; it wants to be somewhere. The movement is palpable. The violins scuttle here and there and I can feel rats in the environment.

The final movement is an adagio, with dissonant melodies prevailing. This is stasis, with no forward movement. It does eventually pick up tempo, and, nearing the end, is quite assertive.

I need to hear it again, but my first impression is that this is an early Modern American quartet, which paints a mesmeric, although bleak, scene.

SQ No. 2, quite similar to the above, is in three movements. Written in 1958, it appears to be of the same mid-1950s style. I’m amazed how many American composers go for this type of emotional sound space. The first, short, movement opens in a pensive mood, set up by an early melodic statement. Nearing the end, the mood turns very peaceful.

The second movement, marked adagio, goes straight into abstraction. I wish I could find another word for this type of feeling. There are synonyms, but they don’t seem right for a sound that I have been seeking my whole musical life. It’s a rumbling, slightly dissonant world that is definitely of this era. I first experienced this atmosphere way back in 1970, on our national broadcaster, the ABC, which played a lot of weird music at that time. It’s an inexplicable type of beauty. Such is the mystery of music. It’s a topic that deserves its own post. I am working on it, but there are many more works to be heard first!

The final movement is agitated and insistent. The instruments clash, both harmonically and rhythmically. This feeling mellows only slightly and it retains an intangible quality throughout its short duration.

Back to Kirchner. His third quartet is for SQ and tape. I find it appalling. It’s like Peter Sculthorpe (reviewed June 2016), arranging all of his quartets for SQ and didgeridoo. I just find it unfathomable.

The final quartet is in one movement, and of ten minutes duration. It was probably written in the early 2000s, as it does not make my fabulous reference volume, The Twentieth-Century String Quartet by Ian Lawrence, which is mostly very reliable. This one opens in a mood of high drama. After a time, it lightens up. The melodies become gentler, and the cello ‘walks’ for one bar! It is an emotionally static work, but still worth hearing.

Interestingly, the composer doesn’t seem to have modified his style in these works, which were written over a period of fifty years.

Kirchner’s complete quartets are available in several versions, some of which only contain the first three quartets. Watch out! The Orion String Quartet version on Amazon is complete. This version is also available on Spotify.

There are many Kirchner quartets on youtube.

Listenability: Satisfying but has a very limited emotional range.

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PER NORGARD – Early String Quartets

Danish composer Per Norgard [born 1932] has written 10 string quartets thus far. The first nine date from 1952 to 1996. I can’t locate a date for No. 10. I am going to discuss quartets Nos. 1 & 2.

Norgard’s first string quartet, marked quartetto breve, which means ‘short quartet’, runs for just under seven minutes! It is in one movement (of course). It opens with a lilting rhythmic motif and the violin enters with a superb melody. This melody is then developed over about three minutes. This is a beautiful section. Then follows some striking cello interjections and the mood becomes a little torrid. The peace returns with a recapitulation of the opening theme. This is a splendid lamenting mood, which is again interrupted by the cello, bringing with it a period of chaos. The melody breaks into a tempo and the chaos continues with a dialogue between the violin and cello. The cello is very prominent, leading the work to its conclusion. This quartet is an outstanding piece of miniaturism; there is just so much beauty compacted into the seven minutes!

The second quartet is again in one movement, this time running for 20 minutes. It is marked brioso, which means ‘spirited’; and so it is. It definitely has a spirited opening, very skittery, with unrelated melodic lines competing for the space. The high register dominates, especially for the first violin. There is a period of dialogue between the violin and cello. The music eventually settles into a passage led by the cello; however the violins soon have their way. After a time, the mood settles down a little, even allowing for a brief pause. The violin and cello re-enter very slowly; long melodies develop here. You could reach out and touch this music, it’s like standing behind a waterfall. The mood slowly develops into an intense section where the cello and violin again converse. Now the cello is the soloist as the violins shimmer in the background.

At around the halfway mark, a brief pause occurs. We are in for a change. The music returns with a strong chordal section. There is no tempo, things just happen. Melodic lines drift over a very sparse harmonic background. The viola has a lead to play here. Now the volume drops back to almost nothing. We only hear the barest of whispers. The mood gently lifts, still quiet but increasing in volume. Now the violins are back to full intensity, the loudest so far in the work. It suddenly cuts back to string sound effects, no development here, just mild chaos. The volume and intensity return as the end is in sight. The cello now leads the way and the intensity has gone. The violin takes over and the music recedes.

This is a wonderful quartet. Norgard became a lot more modern in his many years of composing for string quartet and I intend to discuss one of the later works at another time.

No problem with availability here. Amazon US and UK both have String Quartets 1-6 by the Kontra Quartet and also String Quartets 7-10 by the Kroger Quartet. The latter is also on Spotify.

There are many versions of Norgard’s quartets on youtube.

Listenability: Early works from a Modernist composer.

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WILLIAM ALWYN – String Quartet No. 2 – Spring Waters

British composer William Alwyn [1905-1985] wrote three string quartets between 1953 and 1984. According to Wikipedia, Alwyn ‘relished dissonance, and devised his own alternative to twelve-tone serialism’. Sounds like my kind of guy.

His second quartet was written in 1975 and has three movements. It is titled Spring Waters.

The first movement opens in a picturesque mood as befits the title. A melody quickly develops and it soon becomes quite rowdy with violins swallow-diving over and around the ensemble. The movement pauses and we have a recapitulation of the opening theme. The violins are very active here. The mood is extended with a solo cello section; this is all at a very low volume. The melodies are delightful at this level. A mournful first violin reaches out and there is an occasional response from the second violin. Now the volume increases for a brief interlude until the violins return with their dialogue. This extends for about three minutes to the end. And a fine three minutes it is; very precious music and playing!

The second movement starts with a slightly serious motivic theme. A brief pizzicato section follows and then a recapitulation of the opening theme. This time it is developed more extensively. A second theme is heard and then a third. This is developing into a moody soundscape. A solo cello moves the music forward. Notwithstanding the occasional spikey interjection, the mood becomes slightly intangible. There are motifs and melodies everywhere, and much dialogue, but all the while measured. After a time, the ensemble returns in full with an energised, serious feeling. Then we have more very quiet violin dialogues, moving to a conclusion.

The final movement features some ever so soft string effects. The cello makes a brief statement and the quiet violins return. This is followed by a slow, gently abstract passage which makes for some fine introspection. Suddenly, the volume returns and there is a sense of urgency. It then fades into a solo cello passage. The previous introspective mood returns, this time the cello has more to say. Towards the end, the volume soars and there is some busy music until it finishes with the obligatory flourish!

This quartet has grown on me the past couple of days. It definitely sounds British, not particularly Modern, but with some quietly mild atonality and dissonance; which is how I like it!

String Quartets 1-3 by the Maggini Quartet is available on the Naxos label at Amazon US and UK (or wherever good records are sold). It is also on Spotify.

Some of these quartets are available on youtube.

Listenability: Quality British workmanship.

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DANIEL JONES – Mr Melancholy

Welsh composer Daniel Jones [1912-1993] wrote eight string quartets. These are some of my favourite quartets of the 20th century. I shall discuss his first effort here but you can be sure I will be revisiting him again in the not too distant future!

String Quartet No. 1 was written in 1946 and is in four movements.

The work opens with a very sparse feeling. There is a long pause after the first tentative phrases from the violin. The ensemble responds, maintaining the mood. Another pause ensues. The violin continues with the opening melody, which is very lonely. Another long pause; now the whole ensemble is engaged, moving into a serious musical space for a short time. All the while the melody is being developed. Following another brief pause, the mood lightens a little and all of the instruments come into play. Now we have forward movement, and a much lighter feeling until the mood thickens again. This is a most captivating passage. The music starts to become busy; then returns to the opening melody. There is a long pause and a short theme statement concludes the movement. Such bliss …

The next movement commences as a playful piece. Folk-like melodies prevail and one theme in particular is very charming. A pause leads to a new mood with pizzicato filling out the sound. Now we are back to the soundscape of the first movement. Out of the mood emerges a lone violin statement with minimal accompaniment. This new melody is developed and the intensity increases, before dropping back to a sparse passage. This has another serious theme, very longing. Suddenly a rhythmic passage begins. It develops a strong melody and concludes with a flourish.

The third movement is marked adagio and begins with low cello introducing a melodic mood. There is plenty of space here as the composer takes his time. The introspective nature of the first two movements is repeated here. Slowly a tempo develops but then abruptly stops; another pause. The music returns, just so sparse; it is almost static, just a murmur now and again. It finishes on one lonely note.

The final movement begins in a pastoral mood. A folk-like melody is developed and the music is swept up in it. The sound becomes quite full before the cello introduces a rhythmic motif as a carpet for the violins. This is very delicate music. Another pause follows before a recapitulation of the first movement opening theme. It is developed ever so slowly with the other instruments adding abstract colour to the main violin theme. Another long pause ensues. The theme is stated once, then a few selected notes complete the work. This is a deeply moving piece of music.

If this is Wales, I want to go there! This is a fine set of largely introspective music. There are several modern movements here but it is mostly in a peaceful mood.

There is a 2-CD set of the complete SQs by the Delme Quartet on Chandos. However, availability of the set is uncertain. Sometimes it is on Amazon US or UK, other times the dreaded ‘currently unavailable’ appears. If melancholia appeals to you then I suggest you make an effort to obtain it soon. I recently acquired a used copy, but they are becoming harder to locate. At the time of writing, there were still new copies available on Amazon US.

Some of Jones’ quartets are available on youtube.

Listenability: This is deeply moving, transcendent music.

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ARTUR SCHNABEL – String Quartet No. 5

People may be surprised to find that Austrian piano legend Artur Schnabel [1882-1951] was also a serious composer. Schnabel was the first pianist to record the complete cycle of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. As a composer, he wrote three symphonies and five string quartets.

I am going to discuss his fifth string quartet which was composed in 1940. This is a four movement work.

The quartet opens in a Modern mood, slightly agitated. It is also quite dense. The mood gives way to a solo cello part which is very moving. The cello continues to dominate as the ensemble returns. There is a recapitulation of the opening section; busy but not quite chaotic. The passage then moves into solo cello again, with a very restrained mood. The movement fades to a whisper and concludes.

The second movement is again very busy, this time with a pulse. The mood is quite abstract as the violins bubble along, creating a brooding soundscape. Towards the end of this very short movement, a bit more music appears, then it just stops!

The next movement is marked adagio and is in a very introspective mood. This is pure magic! All four members combine as one to paint a picture of great loneliness. After a brief time in a tempo, the passage returns to the contemplative mood. As it progresses, it becomes more sparse and inward-looking. Nearing the end there is a brief flourish before it settles into a period of longing. The end comes with a violin soaring over some dark chords before it fades to a conclusion.

The final movement is marked presto and there is some joy to be found here. The mood is lighter, but still retains its intensity. A brief pizzicato section leads back to the slightly chaotic feeling of the earlier movements, and the movement ends.

I would also like to mention SQ No. 1 as it is a fine work. Running for a little under 50 minutes, it is almost symphonic in nature. I may discuss it in the future. I shall just need to put a few hours aside due to its length and scope.

String quartet No. 5 is available on Amazon by the Pellegrini Quartet. SQ No. 1 is also available on Amazon US and UK, and Spotify.

Some of Schnabel’s quartets are available on youtube.

Listenability: Slightly strange but appealing works.

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Composers Jean Cras [1879-1932] and Louis Vierne [1870-1937] are both members of the French one string quartet club. (I previously discussed four other members, Chausson and Faure in July 2016, and Debussy and Ravel in May 2016).

The Cras quartet, written in 1909, has four movements. It opens with a deep cello melody before the violins go solo in this splendid slow and moving mood. A brief pause ensues. The violin leads with a new melody, with plenty of space for the other instruments. The melody becomes orchestral as the violins skate across the ensemble’s musings. Another brief pause and a new melody emerges. This is very gentle music. The violins converse, then the cello has its say. The orchestral tone returns and a sweeping downward violin motif gives this passage impetus. Then a slow mood emerges, cello abounds; we are back in quartet territory! The violins repeat the descending motif several times. The ending comes as a fine piece of miniaturism. It’s a fabulous tiny self-contained section!

The next movement opens with a strikingly beautiful melodic mood. Now this is a string quartet! It meanders along until a little more orchestral writing occurs; this is truly wonderful too. Back to the quartet and we have some stunning writing. An orchestral section appears before it gently floats back to the two violins. The dialogue continues for two minutes before it ends peacefully.

The third movement begins with a cello and then a folk-like melody appears. A brief orchestral section gives way to a recapitulation of the opening theme. This leads to a shimmering passage which invokes a new theme, developed slowly into a period of great sensitivity. The cello returns to pizzicato accompaniment, then the violins take over. Again, it sounds slightly orchestral as a major tonality changes to minor, leading to an increased intensity which is sustained to the conclusion.

The final movement opens with a shimmering flourish, which, after a slight pause, is repeated. The piece then moves into a moderate tempo which sounds a little like Dvorak. This influence continues into a stately passage, very folk-like and slowly; new motifs are explored as the intensity recedes. I’m starting to think that Dvorak could have written this movement; it’s certainly his territory. Now some longer melodies evoke Edvard Grieg. Finally Cras returns and the introductory mood resumes. The next section is wonderful, full of optimism; the violins dominate. The end is in sight. The passage builds in intensity and concludes on an orchestral-like chord.

You will have to excuse my use of the word, and concept, of ‘orchestral’. It’s represented here by strong writing, with full sounding sections that are so reminiscent of an orchestra. Also, I hope it is pretty obvious that I really like this piece!

Louis Vierne’s String Quartet, Op.12, was written in 1894. It is in four movements. The piece opens with a solo cello, before the violins join in. The pace quickly picks up into a folk-like melodic section; this continues for some time. The violins dominate and the passage goes through several key changes. It then develops at a more moderate pace, all the while the violins leading the way. This mood continues to an ending featuring a series of chords.

The next movement begins with a skittish violin over a cello. Again folk-like, a charming melody develops. A recapitulation allows for some melodic development; it sounds a little like The Teddy Bears’ Picnic. It pauses briefly, then moves to a quiet conclusion. This movement is only three minutes long.

The third movement is an andante and offers up a satisfying mood. There are hints of a melody from Wagner’s symphonic poem Siegfried Idyll. The intensity increases for a while before a solo violin leads the passage into some stronger melodies. A solo violin goes way up into the high register and the ensemble begin to support it. There is a recapitulation of an earlier melody. There goes Siegfried Idyll again! The concluding section just bubbles along until it finds its resting place.

The final movement is dance-like, again with a folk-like feeling. It moves into quite a pace until the rhythm ceases and it enters a rubato passage. The violin quickly returns to tempo. Melodically, it is still folk-like. After a short pause, a brief fugal interlude ensues. The music struts and is a little orchestral (sorry about that). Nearing the end, the piece is going at a breakneck tempo and finally finishes the work on several repeated chords.

Vierne was also a virtuoso organist who wrote several major organ symphonies, and many works for solo organ. Some of them are quite transcendent. He died while performing the end of a piece, at the organ. As he fell, his left foot landed on the lowest bass pedal and the note reverberated through the cathedral in which he was giving the performance. (Thanks, Wiki).

As to availability, these two fine quartets are not paired on one CD. It’s a bit complicated. The Cras is paired with a Gounod SQ on Amazon US and with his own Piano Quintet on Amazon US and UK. The Vierne is paired with his own Piano Quintet or with a Pierne Piano Quintet on Amazon US and UK. Both quartets are on Spotify.

Some versions of the quartets are available on youtube; Jean Cras here and Louis Vierne here .

Listenability: The obligatory ‘je ne sais quoi’ applies.

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GEORGE ANTHEIL – A Pointer To Minimalism?

American composer George Antheil [1900-1959], wrote three string quartets. The interesting thing about his work is that String Quartet No. 1 shows the earliest examples of Minimalist technique that I have heard. Antheil uses mechanically sounding ostinato passages in his work and I believe that these are one of the pointers to the development of Minimalism.

String Quartet No. 1, in one movement, was written in 1921. It is a Modern work, commencing with a basic ostinato motif that wouldn’t be out of place in a Phillip Glass or Morton Feldman quartet. This motif is intertwined with other similar material which gives the introduction a strong rhythmic impetus. After a time, this gives way to a beguiling quiet passage, which also has a strong Modern character. Then it’s back to the motif. The music continues to oscillate between quiet, abstract passages and the ostinato. Even the rhythmic passages have great melodic variety. Occasionally it drops the rhythm altogether and falls into rubato.

This piece is only 14 minutes long, but I found it wonderfully fulfilling. That basic motif to which I keep referring, is fascinating; so far ahead of its time!

String Quartet No. 2 written in 1927 is titled For Sylvia Beach, With Love, and is in four movements. No. 3 is also in four movements. These two quartets are quite conservative, only showing Modernist elements occasionally. They each feature a fine slow movement, both very beautiful. The quartets seem to be more folk-like, with simpler melodies and many pastoral passages. The CD I have also contains two charming small suites, Lithuanian Night and Six Little Pieces for String Quartet for Mary Louise Bok. The former has a pleasing slow movement.

The particular version under discussion is The Complete String Quartets by the Del Sol Quartet on the Naxos label. There is at least one another version but I’ve not heard it. There are several issues on Amazon US and UK and it can also be found on Spotify.

You can sample several of Antheil’s quartets on youtube.

Listenability: Some delightful Modernism interspersed with the conservative. Music to be savoured.

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ARTHUR LOURIE – Three String Quartets

Russian/American composer Arthur Lourie [1892-1966] wrote three string quartets. In length and complexity they are like the Three Bears. One is substantial, one is medium and the third, very short. I’m going to discuss the first and see how I go from there.

Quartet No. 1 runs for 30 minutes and is in two movements, marked lento and grave, which are both extremely slow. Sounds wonderful!

The first movement runs for 19 minutes and opens with a meandering, intangible theme. It rises in intensity then falls away into a new section.  A loud rhythmic passage gives way to the opening mood again. This is repeated for quite a while; abstract serenity to loud chordal sections. These abstract melodies are wonderful; slightly atonal and sometimes a little agitated. The piece then moves into a dialogue between the cello and the ensemble. This is very mysterious music, I love it. A touch of chaos leads into some string sound effects interspersed with melodic chordal passages.

About halfway through this movement, we have a return to solo violin with occasional sparse interjections. It develops into a set of dancing melodies, mildly dissonant, eventually breaking into a rhythmic pattern and becoming a little darker. This is very controlled, Modern music. Again some further string sound effects are heard. The piece is fully in tempo now. Some alluring, slightly ethnic melodies, drift in and out of the mood. It finishes with a measured atonal flourish.

The second movement opens with some slightly dissonant chords in tempo. The violins wander around the accompaniment. There are hints of middle-eastern scales here. A charming melody develops in the first violin with a very static harmonic background. This mood persists for a while, until a key change has the music turn slightly chaotic with some atonality. It then settles into a positive rhythm building in tension until it just stops. It continues with another gentle atonal section with the strings playing as one. Nearing the end, the piece moves into tempo, and features lyrical melodies. These soon morph back into atonality. It has a false ending with three pizzicato ensemble flourishes, a five-second silence and then a seemingly random sequence of notes. There you have it!

I can really appreciate this quartet. It features the kind of soundscapes where I like to spend time.

String Quartet No. 2 runs for seven minutes! It opens with a slightly dissonant march, then it changes into a more positive mood. The dissonant march returns and is followed by a folk-like section. This leads into a series of chordal interjections. The volume then drops to a whisper before the violin leads the ensemble into a folk-like dance through many different moods and tempo changes. As the piece winds down, some of the opening themes reoccur. This time it’s another false ending with a five-second break leading into a seemingly random passage to conclude.

This quartet, being so short, makes me wonder what it was all about. It was written in 1923, so I guess there were different ideas floating around at that time. I’m constantly surprised at how some Modernist composers end their movements. I can recall a number of times writing ‘It just stops’ lately. Oh well.

The third quartet has three movements. The first, marked Prelude, opens with a sparkling little passage, and wanders around this for the whole 90 seconds of the movement!

The second movement, marked Chorale begins tenderly. It slowly inches forward. There is a little dissonance towards the end, but I find it be spiritual in mood. It is very lyrical.

The third movement, marked Hymne, is again, a little march-like although I could imagine a hymn being sung to it. Featuring a slow, but pronounced tempo, the attractive opening theme is developed in various ways. It is a lot more confident by the time the end arrives.

The last movement, marked Marche Funebre (funeral march), opens with a very low cello melody, and a small violin diversion before a return to the introductory cello theme. The composer then applies a set of variations to a melodic motif for some time. The cello is still prominent, offering up dark melodies, as befits the title. As it nears the conclusion, there is a beautiful little passage with whispering violins. Then it just fades away.

These are relatively youthful quartets, all written before 1927. To me, they fit the Modern mould of these times although the two long slow movements of the first quartet surprised me. Basically, Lourie’s quartets are reflective and, if I may speculate, seem more than a little spiritual.

As to availability, there is a set containing the Utrecht SQ on the ASV label at Amazon UK. I couldn’t find it on Amazon US or Spotify.

Some of Lourie’s quartets are available for sampling on youtube here.

Listenability: Very introspective, in the main.

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EASLEY BLACKWOOD – Three String Quartets

American composer Easley Blackwood [1933-] composed four string quartets. These are quite Modern and as such, will not appeal to all tastes. However, there are some Modern SQ listeners out there. You know who you are!

The first quartet, marked largo, which usually means slow and stately, commences with a slow section that lasts all of 30 seconds. It is followed by a slightly frantic passage which then moves back into the opening largo tempo. This is atonal music which shows dissonance but I find it stimulating. The piece moves into a slow, quiet atonal passage for a time before the chaos returns. This winds down beautifully leaving a solo cello passage to complete the movement. The second movement is taken up with a quiet, simple abstract melody which concludes on a cello melody with pizzicato from the other instruments; very introspective music. The third movement has a strong rhythmic pulse together with a disjointed melody, played in a conversational manner. This is Modern but not angry music, it’s just different!

SQ No. 2 commences with a series of abstract melodies, taken at a moderate tempo. It sets up a beautifully dissonant mood. The tempo picks up and the passage takes on a conversational approach with the quartet bouncing ideas off each other. The cello takes over, with some subtle accompaniment from the violins. This is a superb section. The second, short movement is a gentle footrace which develops into some spikey violin interjections. This does not distract from the abstract beauty of the music. The final movement, marked molto lento, is simply stunning. It begins slowly and quietly before moving into a darker section, which suddenly stops, leading into a lament for the two violins. There is more action, then absolute peace, as the violins whisper over the cello. A stark chord concludes the piece.

Now, on to the third quartet. The first movement opens with a pastoral feeling (you better believe it) with plenty of lilting melodies that are sustained to the end, which is very peaceful. The second movement is also completely of a pastoral nature. The third movement is the longest piece on the CD; a fine adagio, with not a note out of place. The final movement is a jaunty affair; a continuous collection of spirited melodies.

So there we have it, two Modern quartets and the third, conservative. I must admit I find the combination a little puzzling, but eminently pleasing.

The CD under consideration, Easley Blackwood, String Quartets, 1 – 3, by the Pacifica Quartet is freely available. The cover is a wonderful picture of four multi-coloured butterfly wings, which would go nicely with your CD rack!

There doesn’t appear be any versions of Blackwood’s quartets on youtube!

Listenability: A modern composer expressing himself in different ways.

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GRAZYNA BACEWICZ – The Progression of a Composer

Grazyna Bacewicz [1910-1969] was a Polish female composer, who wrote seven string quartets from 1938-1965. I thought I would discuss an early and middle quartet, namely Nos. 1 and 4.

SQ No. 1 is in three movements, as are all of her early works. The first movement wanders through some simple motifs for a while before it breaks into an allegro tempo. It settles into this with some slightly atonal melodies. I hear a bit of Dvorak here (again) and the music settles into a satisfying passage. The tempo strengthens and new motifs are introduced; the music is moving forward and finds itself in an eminently satisfying passage. It backs off the dynamics but increases the tempo, becoming quite busy. After a pause, the opening returns until some pizzicato allows for variation in the thematic material. Towards the end of the movement, there are some attractive quiet periods, finishing on the seemingly obligatory flourish.

The next movement has a beautiful introductory statement. This is why I listen to string quartets. They can take me to places that no other music can. This charming passage reminds me of earlier times. After a time, a new melody is presented; it is very subtle.  The tempo picks up again, the cello asserts a strong melody, and then the violins return. There is a hint of a plaintive melody as the movement winds down and fades out on a long note. What a pleasant piece!

The final movement starts at a rollicking tempo. The violins skip across the ensemble and keep up the positive mood. As with many European SQs of this era, there are folk-like melodies to be found here. The two violins continue their conversation to a conclusion.

SQ No. 4 opens in a sombre mood, with the cello taking the lead. The tempo quickens and the music becomes quite busy for a moment. Then comes the recapitulation, followed by a new theme. This is at a moderate tempo and leads to a shift in the mood. The piece drops back to the opening mood and introduces a prolonged period of delicate ambience. This is a charming passage, music of its time.  The tempo takes over again, but not for long, as the introversion returns. The winding down to the conclusion is particularly felicitous. This is simple, thoughtful music. The volume never rises above moderate, yet there are incisive passages.

The second movement is again slow and quite alluring. It has a very tender forward pulse, with small peaks in the melody. It sounds Modern but the composer uses mesmeric notes rather than dissonance. Out of this a melodic theme emerges.  A new section brings a new violin melody and it finally breaks into gentle abstraction; this is a most engaging passage. It finishes on a long violin note and a cello ‘pop’ to conclude.

The final allegro movement is folk-like and very rhythmic. A second theme is introduced and sustained by the violins. The movement turns into a cornucopia of folk-like themes that eventually race to the conclusion.

After SQ No. 4, the composer becomes increasingly Modern. There is still some fine music there but seems to me to be a case of Modernity for its own sake. The change is not overbearing but should be noted by anyone interested in Bacewicz’s string quartets.

All of her quartets are freely available. There is a complete Chandos 2-CD set at Amazon UK and also two separate Naxos CDs. It can be found on Spotify.

Pretty much all of Bacewicz’s quartets are available on youtube.

Listenabilty: This is not romantic music, but mildly modern.

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Italian composer Ildebrando Pizzetti [1880-1968] wrote two sumptuous string quartets. He was a member of the “Generation of 1880” along with Gian Francesco Malipiero (reviewed June 2016) and Ottorino Respighi. They were among the first Italian composers in some time whose primary contributions were not in opera. (Thanks, Wiki).

These are Romantic works. I refer to them as sumptuous because of their texture and orchestral approach. Both of the quartets contain four movements.

String quartet No. 1 is in A major and was written in 1906. The opening is breathtakingly beautiful. It sustains this attractive mood and the composer’s orchestral style really shines through. It is such a full sound! The violins continue with the opening melodies while the cello and viola slip into variations. After a time, there is a hint of a minor tonality but the beauty is untouched. There are orchestral-like crescendos that soon return to the natural dynamic level of the quartet. Minor crescendos come and go but the piece sustains its natural mood for nine minutes. This is a miniature masterpiece!

Movement two is an adagio in a major key, which is a little unusual. The writing is again orchestral-like and the effect is similar to the first movement. It has a long attractive melody that is sustained for two minutes, before it drops into a subtle minor tonality. There is very little variation, but it really doesn’t need it. This is a place for ‘being in’.

The third movement is again slow, and very reflective. Then it jumps into tempo. The melodies are busier here and there is forward movement for the first time in the piece. This movement doesn’t last for long and it returns to a slow tempo with the two violins engaging in conversation. Sometimes it is reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Now the tempo picks up again and many new melodies emerge. It then lets you down with a peaceful conclusion.

The final movement is totally out of character, in a nice way. It skips along in a moderate tempo. I love the way Pizzetti subtly shifts from major to minor for a short time, before embracing the major again. The tempo then drops a little, allowing for longer melodies to be presented. The tempo returns, as does the joyous mood. There goes that minor again, but not for long. The violins begin to ask questions, then provide their own answers. Nearing the end, the cello has a voice before the piece goes out with a flourish.

String quartet No. 2 is in D major and was written in 1933. That is quite a gap but it’s not uncommon for SQ composers to leave a considerable time between quartets. I’m not sure what to read into that. Many composers leave a ten year gap between quartets. Others write in consecutive years.

The opening of the first movement signals a completely different approach to No. 1. It is a melancholy piece, very stately and rewarding. What Pizzetti can do in a major key is stunning. He seems to be able to embrace such a wide emotional range. The tempo and strength increase for about three minutes until there is a drop in the dynamics. Gentle melodies follow; we are in a respite. The composer works his way into a more intense section, which is no way chaotic, even though the melodies are flying past at a great rate. Then a dignified melancholia returns. The harmonies are so close it sounds like early music. Nearing the conclusion, a pleasing melody returns to finish.

The next movement is an adagio, a tempo at which Pizzetti excels! More shades of The Lark Ascending. Beautiful! There is a certain element of stasis here; the violin wanders through various moods and yet the ensemble is very soft. This is a very attractive passage. Five minutes have elapsed but it still sounds reminiscent of the opening. It is definitely a movement for the featured solo violin. Finally some tension emerges but it soon reverts to peace. There is a hint of Beethoven here.

The third movement is relatively short. It opens with a pair of violins playing a harmonised line. It then moves into a solid ensemble sound at a tempo. This is very reminiscent of Dvorak (the ultimate influential). There is another quote from Beethoven as well. A key change signals a new melody. Deep in Dvorakian territory, the mood swells in intensity. A brief pause and the swelling begins again. Then we enter a totally new rhythmic and melodic section which takes it to the conclusion.

The final movement is substantial; eleven minutes, I’m looking forward to it! It opens with a forceful flourish and a slightly aggressive melody. This is already the darkest piece on the CD. It settles into a more moderate mood and the violin melody is a lot more conservative, with sweeping lines. It then becomes serious again, this time with swirling violin melodies. That brief minor to major and back again reappears and seems to bring the piece under control. The ensemble bubbles along as the violins intensify again. This morphs into a pastoral section, very pleasant. After a time, a moderately tense section is heard but it fades to a solo violin melody that is searching for something, and it finds it with the help of the ensemble. This is quite poignant and becomes even more longing as the section progresses. We are nearing the end now and it concludes with a flourish. Considering the 27-year gap between the two quartets I would expect a little Modernism and that’s what I heard in this movement, a little Modernism!

These works were an unexpected pleasure, given that I had not heard of Pizzetti before yesterday. I normally struggle a little discussing Romantic quartets. Often I do not feel the same overtly expressive emotional feeling I glean from Modern quartets. Romantic quartets tend to lend themselves more to technical discussions about form and structure rather than emotional content which I find to be quite limited. I’m going to stick to my non-technical style!

These works are performed by the Lajtha Quartet, both on Naxos and Marco Polo, which is a Naxos subsidiary. They are also are on Spotify.

Both of Pizzetti’s quartets are available on youtube.

Listenability: Somewhat conservative music. Deep, not intellectually, but emotionally.

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DIAMOND – A Youthful First Quartet (and some)

David Diamond [1915-2005] is an American composer who wrote eleven symphonies and eleven string quartets. The quartets were written between 1940 and the early 2000s.

SQ No. 1 is in one movement with three tempo markings – adagio – allegroandante; so basically it’s going to be pretty slow – it doesn’t turn out that way. The opening notes remind me of Mahler, it just sounds very symphonic. It’s also a little like Charles Ives – very American. The stately opening moves through a pastoral section. The mood is broken by some jagged edges and a swirling epiphany of notes. The music takes on a serious tone in the allegro section. There is also plenty of forward movement here. It finally settles as the Mahler-like mood returns. The tempo disappears and we are back in the opening mood. There is a distinct pause in the proceeding, as if needed to gather one’s thoughts. This whole middle section is all about moving towards the final andante. It doesn’t get more pastoral than this; this is an early American soundscape! The beauty of this passage is remarkable. And then, the spirit lifts; the music is on the move again. The rural sound remains but it is on a more positive note. Flurries are everywhere and the energy is palpable. As we move toward the end, the rhythm dissipates but returns for one final closing flourish. A fine first string quartet.

SQ No. 5 is also on this CD but I won’t be discussing it. It was written in 1960. To my ears, it sounds more Modern than No. 6, quite angry at times.

SQ No. 6 is in two movements and was written in 1962. The first movement shows a lot of progression from the first quartet. It begins with a slow, atonal lament. This is the music for which I paid my money! It is mysterious and won’t settle. The agitation is not intense but you can feel it. Slowly, a period of chaos emerges, all the while retaining the low intensity. Finally the volume comes up and the mood proceeds with some angular, slightly aggressive passages. It relents and moves back into abstraction. This is a very formless movement; it wanders freely through several moods.

The opening of the second movement, marked adagio, is reminiscent of Bela Bartok’s first string quartet with its sparse melodies. It quickly, and quietly, moves into a tempo. After a time, the mood dissipates leaving the melody to wander freely around some long forgotten scene. The movement continues to alternate between slow, atonal passages and jumpy melodic sections. One of these sections is pure pizzicato. As it moves inexorably to its conclusion, the passages continue to alter in texture and approach.

Wikipedia refer to Diamond as ‘a tonal, sometimes modal composer whose work was overtaken by the dominance of the atonal movement’. In my opinion, his quartets contain large slabs of atonality and dissonance.I believe it was his lack of resorting to the use of Modern effects such as aggression and violence that lead to his decline in popularity. His work was always kept in check, technically and emotionally.

This CD is Volume 3 of a set of Diamond’s Complete Quartets performed by the Ptomac SQ.  The set is freely available on Amazon US and two volumes of the set are on my Spotify.

Many of Diamond’s quartets are available on youtube.

Listenability: Satisfying, mostly measured works.

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ANTONIN DVORAK – The Last Quartets

By far the most popular post on my blog is Antonin Dvorak’s Opus 96, SQ no. 12 in F Major, (reviewed May 2016). I thought I would continue on with his last two quartets. As noted previously, Czech composer Dvorak [1841–1904] wrote fourteen string quartets and very influential they were too! This post will cover Opus 106, SQ No. 13 in G Major and Opus 105, SQ No. 14 in A major.

Opus 106 is in four movements. It is a substantial work, clocking in at just over 31 minutes. The first movement opens with a typical Dvorakian flourish. A charming melody is introduced, and then another, followed by a return to the former.  There is a passage which settles into a plaintive melody, with harmonisation from the ensemble. After eight minutes, he is still working with melodies and motifs from the first two minutes. He hurries to the end with great vigour. The strength of the writing gives this movement an orchestral flavour.

Dvorak has such a distinctive style, it is no wonder how influential he has been. He seems to be able to craft a set of memorable melodies that can be stated, recrafted and restated, to sustain a lengthy section. I doubt that anyone could ever use pentatonic, folk-like melodies as well as Dvorak.

Movement two is marked adagio and so be it. The tempo is very slow and I believe I can hear evidence of the composer’s American sojourn here. The melodies are not so obvious here until about the three minute mark, when he moves into a pentatonic scale. A brief pause signals a new mood with solo cello prevailing. Major turns to minor and the movement edges forward. This is a deeply felt pastoral passage. The adagio tempo dominates the movement to the end.

The third movement begins with a pure folk-like melody. It settles into a gentle mood and then returns to an earlier theme. There is a sweeping sense of forward movement here. A false ending carries on into a slightly orchestral section. He forges his way to the conclusion with wonderful recapitulations of the many melodies he has introduced during the passage. This a very memorable movement.

The finale, marked andante opens with a quiet passage before morphing into a dance. There is some rephrasing of earlier melodies. Rhythmic sections constantly swap with slow passages. Melodies from earlier movements are frequently being revisited. I find this movement a little long but hey, it’s quite a ride.

Dvorak’s string quartet No. 14 in A major has the Opus No. 105 as it was started before Opus 106 but not finished until after. Similar to No. 13, it is long; over 30 minutes.

The first movement, marked adagioallegro, has the stamp of Beethoven on its opening bars. There is a tremendous sense of longing in this section. This is a special place to be. It quickly moves into more positive territory with hectic rhythms before it returns to the opening melody, with variations. This is very powerful music. There is movement from major to minor keys which gives the piece further interest. Dvorak is a very conversational composer; his work is scattered with call and response. The energy finally dissipates and returns to a charming melody. After a time, it takes off again and the rhythm predominates. He then returns to an earlier melodic theme, with a different treatment. The conclusion is peaceful with the instruments conversing with each other.

Movement two opens with a typical Dvorak melody; such a recognisable style! These are prancing melodies. It then moves into a peaceful section which is developed using pentatonic scales. The key changes and the tempo returns. The composer has such a distinctive style it is difficult to imagine anyone else composing this music. A brief pause leads back into a positive melody. This is developed in various tempos, mostly of a strident nature. The conclusion is a measured variant of the original melody.

The third movement begins slowly with an alluring long melody that recalls SQ No. 12, the one written in America. These last three, twelve through fourteen, do in fact form a set. They share many properties. The melody lingers for a while until a rhythmic tempo is established, the cello carrying the other instruments. Then it is back to Czechoslovakia for a time with a simple, folk-like melody. Dvorak’s use of contrast between major and minor is enchanting. The conclusion is a variation on a previously used theme.

The final movement marked allegro starts in the cello, picking up on a melody used earlier. The composer then moves into a galloping style for a time. The melody returns, with a further major to minor change. Melodic development abounds. There are even two quotes from Beethoven’s Late Quartets. The cello leads the ensemble into a new melody. Finally the composer refers to his stately home ground, Czechoslovakia. Old material is constantly reworked and another brief Beethoven quote is heard. The end is frenetic and final.

Dvorak is always his own man. He doesn’t really fit the late Romantic period in which he lived, but neither is he in any way Modern. In my opinion, he is the most important string quartet composer of the 19th century after Beethoven.

Strangely, to find both SQ 13 and 14 on one disc is quite difficult, unless you have 1200 British pounds to spare. The same disc is also available used, for four British pounds. They can be obtained on separate discs, very easily. Spotify have them but you have to specify the number 13 (or 14) to find them.

Many of Dvorak’s quartets, including Nos. 13 & 14 are available on youtube.

Listenability: Wonderful late works.

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Roland Dahinden [born 1962] is a Swiss trombonist and composer. He appears to have written five string quartets, four of which make up the CD Flying White.  I am also going to briefly examine another CD, Silberen.

I believe Dahinden has been listening to a lot of Morton Feldman. It took me a little while to get over that, but after a few listens I have found these quartets to be strikingly peaceful. I thought long and hard about reviewing this work, given that it may be too esoteric, but it is fine music. By the way, this will be a very short review! The four quartets on Flying White are all named, one-movement works. You can hear a slight development of style as you progress through the pieces.

SQ No. 2 – Mind Rock. This work is made up mostly of strange chords, usually lasting 2-3 seconds. When a chord is played, there is either little or no melodic movement within that chord. I wouldn’t call them melodies but some consecutive chords contain notes that might be construed as melodic development. This piece runs to 14:10.

SQ No. 3 – Mond See. Very similar to Mind Rock but slightly more melodic, runs for 14:23. This movement has more entropy as there are varying lengths of gaps between the chords. It is a lot more spacious than No. 2 (as if it needed to be).

SQ No. 4 – Flying White. Basically, more of the same. However, there is a lot more obvious melodic development in the chords. There are also a few string quartet sound effects thrown in. It runs for 12:03.

SQ No. 5 – Poids de’Lombre’ (Shadow Weight). Similar again, but definite melodies appear here. This one clocks in at 24:58 (and it really rocks!)

Now onto Silberen. This CD contains a 45 minute piece entitled Piano and String Quartet. The pianist is Hildegard Kleeb, Dahinden’s wife. It also features the Arditti Quartet, who I normally tend to avoid. They play beautifully here, very measured and sparse. The work is reminiscent of Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet. But then again, it isn’t. It just uses the same instrumentation, and, possibly form. This piece, which runs for 45 minutes, is very sparse.  The quartet and piano enter at varying times, sometimes alone, sometimes together. There is no tempo, no harmony and no melodic development. It’s just a piece of pure abstraction. I couldn’t begin to analyse it. It is what it is; whatever that is! You have to hear it for yourself. I’d venture an opinion that some people would not like it. However, I’m pretty comfortable with the Morton Feldman approach and I could definitely listen to it again. This style of music is great to have on while you are doing something, it gives you space to think!

There is a total absence of forward movement in these works. I remember enjoying SQ Nos. 2 & 3 when I first heard them, but I now find Nos. 4 and 5 to be similarly appealing. Not much more I can say. I believe I could read while listening to these. Normally I can’t read with music on; I have to be doing something! The Piano and String Quartet is just very different music. I like it, just as I enjoy Feldman’s soundscapes.

It reminds me of a (pompous) Schoenberg quote – ‘If it’s art, it’s not for the people. If it’s for the people, it’s not art!’ Make of that what you will.

The Flying White CD is performed by Klangforum Wien String Quartet. It is freely available on Amazon US and UK, as is the Silberen CD. If you would like a sneak preview, they are both on Spotify!

Most of Dahinden’s quartets are available on youtube.

Listenability:  Extreme but beguiling Minimalism.

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LEOS JANACEK – The Kreutzer Sonata

Czech composer Leos Janacek [1854-1828] wrote two brilliant string quartets. I have already reviewed the second, Intimate Letters (May 2016), and now I shall discuss his first quartet, Kreutzer Sonata. This title was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s short story, The Kreutzer Sonata, which was itself inspired by Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata for Violin and Piano, No. 9, Opus 47.

It is of interest to be aware of the short story as I believe that it sheds light on the piece. A man, Pozdnyshev, and a woman, are happily married but after five children, the wife, who is a pianist, takes lessons from a music teacher, a violinist. They play the Kreutzer Sonata together. Pozdnyshev, in a jealous rage, goes away on a trip. When he returns early he finds his wife and the teacher together. Pozdnyshev then stabs his wife to death. You can hear feelings expressed in this quartet that relate to various parts of the story, which is obviously more complex than my four-line version of events! This story is a great read.

The first, fascinating movement, begins with a longing theme, played by the first violin, and answered by the three other players. It then moves into tempo and introduces another delightful theme, filled with passion. There follows a recapitulation of the first theme, this time much quicker. The violin takes over again before it leads into a quiet, busy passage. A recapitulation of the second theme brings the movement to a close. Words can’t do justice to this fine music.

The second movement introduction is a joyful, almost skittish passage. Then follows a rather more intense section. Janacek is a master at restating themes, in different contexts. The conclusion is a wonderful restatement of the first theme, with an awesome cello part.

The next movement again opens with a feeling of longing, almost desperation. The solo violin absolutely yearns with occasional interjections from the ensemble. In the next section the tension is palpable. Then follows a succession of more longing until it quietly concludes.

The final movement is a fine denouement. There is a long period of introspection before the music comes to life again. The composer reintroduces the opening theme from the first movement, this time in a chaotic manner. It moves into a gallop and then to a passive conclusion.

This is a highly emotionally-charged quartet, as is SQ No. 2 Intimate Letters. These are magnificent works. If this was all that Janacek had ever written, it would be enough. With what went on in his life, he would probably say ‘enough!’

In terms of availability of the pairing, there must be over 100 CDs out there. I have it with the complete Bartok SQs on RCA Victor. There are also at least three versions on Spotify.

Many versions of the Kreutzer quartet are available on youtube.

Listenability: One of the 50 CDs you should hear etc.

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AULIS SALLINEN – Pushing the Boundaries

Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen [born 1935] wrote five string quartets, from 1958 to 1983. The CD that I am going to discuss contains all five. I will be concentrating on Nos. 3 & 4. I’ll see how I go with No. 5. Nos. 1 & 2 can be difficult at times. They are still worthwhile pieces. It is significant they were written in his mid-twenties. I think that it is just a case of a young composer trying to be ‘modern’ and changing his philosophy with the passage of time. It’s great if this is so, for many composers have continued on the modern path, some losing their way and crossing the barrier between sound and noise. More discussion on that topic another time!

Except for String Quartet No. 1, which has three movements, all of the others are named, single-movement works.

SQ No. 3 is titled Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrikin’s Funeral March (1969). It opens as a gentle, slightly ethnic sounding march. It sounds quite attractive and made me look forward to what I was getting into. This mood persists with some minor harmonic changes for two minutes and then the pulse becomes more insistent. Dissonance starts to appear. It doesn’t last, but moves into a pizzicato section. The opening theme returns and the music wanders as the march disappears. Gentle dissonant violin sounds make for an enthralling mood as they play variations on the opening theme. Now the tempo quickens and the mood becomes conversational. First fast, then slow, now fast again and so on. It’s a dialogue between two different tempos. It then reverts to the opening march theme for a moment before a solo violin takes over, with the cello responding to the violin. The insistent tempo returns for an instant before dissolving into a folk-like passage, again slightly dissonant. Solo cello takes over now, and is then joined by the violins. This is as dissonant as it gets but it doesn’t last; it is taken out by a quiet, solo and cello passage.

SQ No. 4 is titled Quiet Songs (1971). It is exactly that! The opening sounds like a church organ with sparse playing from the quartet. The melody is simple but haunting. It continues in this manner for some three minutes until the cello tries to introduce a pulse. It doesn’t persist, but is replaced by an achingly mournful dissonant passage. A tempo establishes itself, still haunting, a little like a slow Gypsy dance. The cello touches on ethnic folk scales. There is a brief pause and then the cello and violin converse. The violins take the lead over a very soft and slow tempo. Previous segments of music constantly reappear. Suddenly, the piece becomes energised as the violin propels it forward. Then, after a time, the mood almost becomes stasis, a drone with little variation. There is a slight burst of movement before the piece ends. This is more like funeral music than the previous piece.

SQ No. 5 is titled Pieces of Mosaic (1983). It runs for 24 minutes, nearly double the length of all the other pieces on the CD. The movement opens with violin interjections which morph into a ‘fluttery’ passage, quite abstract, but beguiling. After a time, some rhythmic impetus is felt, with scales not unlike those in Terry Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace (reviewed June 2016). European string quartet composers have often gone to folk music for inspiration and this is the case here. The tempo quickens and rhythms appear. The music is stately, with an occasional hint of chaos. Emphatic passages come to the fore in an extended section until around the 12-minute mark when it all dissolves back into nothing.

There is some subtle playing from the violins as they cry out. The loneliness is palpable. This is a desolate soundscape. The ethnic scales continue in this muted passage. Finally a rhythm emerges, albeit a little disjointed. But it does give form to the section. Now the violin interjections reappear. I keep hearing its similarity to Salome but in other ways they are worlds apart. As the piece moves towards a conclusion, the anger of the interjections give way to a morose feeling. It finishes with some quiet violin flourishes.

I feel like I have been through the wringer, discussing this piece; there is no joy to be found here. But I believe this music does tell a story. We just don’t know what it is. All we have are our imaginations to make sense of such abstraction. I look forward to hearing it again in ‘non-review mode!’

The CD is titled String Quartets 1-5 and is admirably performed by the Sibelius Quartet. It is available at Amazon US and UK and is also on Spotify. I leave it for you to ponder.

You can hear many versions of Sallinen ‘pushing the boundaries’ on youtube.

Listenabilty: This is not happy music, but sometimes I like that.

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JEREMY BECK – Contemporary Works

American composer Jeremy Beck, born in 1960, has written five string quartets. Let’s hope there are some more! 1, 2, 4 and 5 are all on this one CD. The quartets normally run around 15 minutes.

String Quartet No. 1 is a three movement work. It opens with a grave passage which soon moves into a forceful section. The rhythms are reasonably intense, but they soon mellow in to a passage of melodic stability. The angst returns for a section, but mellows into a pastoral mood. The violins lead this work, and do a fine job. There are some reflective passages which ease into the conclusion.

Movement two is an adagio. Long melodies define the opening of the movement. The cello marks out its space with a sombre line. The violins come over the top; they are plaintive and we soon have pure introspection. This mood is sustained for the bulk of the movement. A forceful passage breaks the mood. It quickly mellows and reverts back to introspection. The violins define this mood with call and response passages from the ensemble. It finishes with a whisper.

The third and final movement is marked presto. It opens with a conversational approach, with little emphasis on rhythm. The quartet are in a playful mood; melodies come and go, with all instruments contributing to the atmosphere. The playful mood is sustained for the duration of this charming piece.

String Quartet No. 2 is titled Fathers and Sons. The first movement, Fathers, is the longest piece on the disc, just over 12 minutes. It opens as a very beautiful adagio mood. Long drawn–out melodies eventually give way to a brief, playful section. The adagio returns in a magnificent passage. While not being an American, I believe I can garner a sense of the open plains and those eroded rock formations that are seen in the drier parts of the US. The music now comes to a halt. A robust section commences and there are key changes which I hadn’t noticed before. We now have all four members playing the same rhythmic motif. Then interplay is re-introduced leading to a rollicking passage. This is followed by another distinct change of mood. The tempo decreases and while starting gently, a new rhythmic motif soon appears. When the section is over, the composer returns to the cerebral adagio mood to complete the piece. This is a terrific ending, so delicate and captivating.

The second movement, Sons, opens with a folksy feeling. Music like this could only come out of America. I wouldn’t call it pastoral but it is music of the country. It’s not until it is halfway through its five minute length that the mood becomes gently abstract. It ends on a long faded note.

String Quartet No. 5 is in three movements. The first, opens with a duality. Two moods come and go. The first is sparse, the second is more lyrical. The latter eventually predominates and, for a while, the piece is built around this mood. Suddenly the cello appears, marking out a constant tempo. The other instruments drift freely in this space until the cello drops the rhythm and joins the conversation. Another fade takes it out.

The second movement opens very gracefully, with sparse instrumentation. The mood builds until all of the members are communicating freely. After a short pause, the violin comes in with a lament that continues to the completion of the piece. This is a most beautiful ending.

The final movement commences with a dialogue between the first violin and cello. It is over two minutes before all of the quartet are playing. The dialogue eventually extends to all four players and continues to the end with the obligatory swoop.

I’ve just listened to Quartet No. 4 and realised I should examine that as well. It sounded beautiful! This one is in four movements. The first movement is marked allegro furioso. Well, it isn’t. It’s a joyful romp for all concerned. Besides that, it quickly morphs into a lilting passage. The opening returns briefly and all’s well that ends well!

The second movement is a fine piece of melancholia. It only runs for two minutes. The first violin works at the top of its range for a time before being joined, gently, by the ensemble. All have a part to play here but the cello is especially prominent.

The third movement again opens with a beautiful peaceful feeling. Cello and violin dominate the opening. After a while, it becomes a little raucous but it doesn’t interrupt the mood which soon returns and holds its own until the conclusion.

Movement four opens with a shimmering feeling from the violins which is truly wonderful. As the movement develops, I’m beginning to feel that it seems to be Beck’s trademark to have violin and cello duets. They are marvellous together here as they fade out to the end.

There are several different ensembles on this disc so I won’t mention them. They all play beautifully. This CD, Quartets is available on Amazon US and UK at present but it’s starting to look a little scarce. My recommendation, which I don’t make very often, is buy it!

You can hear most of the quartets on this disc on youtube.

Listenability: A must have.

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PAUL HINDEMITH – The Lost Quartet

German composer Paul Hindemith [1895-1963] wrote seven string quartets. Opus 2 – SQ No. 1, sometimes called No. 0 was only discovered in 1994. My ‘complete’ set of the composer’s quartets by the Kocian Quartet was unfortunately recorded before this date and therefore does not feature the piece. I was just so disappointed. I shall be discussing it from a different, single CD. It has one of the finest openings in the chamber music repertoire. It’s up there with the opening of the Felix Mendelssohn Octet in terms of its vigour.

It is a four-movement work, quite long at just over 40 minutes.

The opening to the first movement is pure joy. It has such a forward propulsion and an Oh, so joyous a melody as you will find. Hindemith works with this melody for about two minutes before he introduces a new theme. There is a persuasive motif that the composer feels bears repeating. The movement moves into another section which features a recapitulation  of the opening theme. It’s wonderful to hear it again in a long restatement.  A new theme develops and we are treated to another set on variations on the opening theme. New melodic themes fly by, recapitulations occur and the momentum is sustained.  A quiet passage brings with it introspection. All the while you can sense the opening theme as the composer applies multiple sets of variations to the opening material. The brisk tempo mostly continues throughout the whole movement. Another recapitulation occurs; I can never get enough of it!  A slow section brings forth a particularly brilliant melody. The tempo lessens for a moment and the change produces another new melody. A previous theme is reintroduced, and again there is hint of the opening theme. Hindemith is determined to sustain the tempo and to introduce multiple sets of variations. The final moments are reflective as he leads the movement to a satisfying end. I just love this movement. I think it is one of the finest in the string quartet repertoire. What a wonderful discovery it must have been in 1994!

The second movement, marked adagio, features a very quiet and beguiling theme. The cello and the first violin dominate over an extended melody. Eventually the theme builds and breaks into a moderate tempo with a new melodic line. This is a charming section. I can hear hints of melodies from the first movement, but they are never resolved. A slow passage occurs, with the solo cello reaching the bottom of its range. The violin returns with a wonderful melody that just seems to go on and on. The ensemble builds a feeling of great strength, very resolute. Then the movement drops away, leaving the violin to sketch out a sombre melody, backed by the cello. This is a marvellous section, sparse, understated and stately. As the theme develops, the ensemble returns and fills out the music, giving it a grand feeling. The violin soars and works at sub-themes from the first movement. As the second movement winds down, there is another return to material from the first movement as it quietly fades away. I had never noticed it before but these first two movements are inextricably linked.

Movement three opens with a skittish section, led by the violin. The dynamics change to a lower level, but the feeling is sustained. The cello enters and dialogues with the violin. It becomes quite chaotic in a pleasant way. This gives way to a slow passage, where the violin and cello are predominant. This is a fascinating section, with a lot of intertwining of lines. The opening feeling returns, as the violin struts its stuff, with interjections from the ensemble. Then it stops, just like that.

The fourth and final movement begins in a jovial mood, very playful. The violin sets a breakneck pace as the ensemble attempt to keep up. After a while, the intensity drops but the feeling continues. This a celebration! The first violin prevails. I notice a theme from the first movement in the cello, very subtle. Then the violin quotes openly from the same movement. It continues to dominate, almost in a frantic but not frenzied manner, constantly moving the music forward. More recapitulation occurs. Hindemith certainly gets value from his melodic material. The violin leads the movement to a graceful conclusion.

This is a terrific string quartet. My review copy, by the Amar Quartet also contains String Quartet No. 4, arguably Hindemith’s most popular quartet. A fine work, there is a lovely slow movement and two others that are very special. Naturally, No. 4 is a lot more Modern, but it is eminently listenable. This CD is on the Naxos label and is also on Spotify.

The first movement of No. 1 can be heard on youtube, together with many others.

Listenability: One of my favourite string quartets. Very long and worth every second.

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I often wonder why so many popular French composers from the late 19th century and on, wrote only one string quartet? Were they taking a lead from Debussy and Ravel? Ernest Chausson [1855-1899] and Gabriel Faure [1845-1924] were both members of the one-quartet club. Others include Cesar Franck, Henri Dutilleux, Albert Roussel, Jean Cras and probably more. I shall see how I go with these at some other time.

Chausson’s quartet opens at a very slow tempo. All of the instruments take a turn at the lead melody and, when the tempo gets a bit confusing, they all revert back to the slow, measured opening. Suddenly we have left melancholia behind, the tempo lifts, and the violin sweeps above the ensemble. The mood changes to a pastoral scene, with the violin very much in command. The cello takes over, leading the music into another slow passage. The tempo picks up, and the violin enters with its own story to tell. Gradually, the ensemble gathers force and the music is reminiscent of an earlier section. The players then work overtime with a hectic passage, continuing for some time. The violin soars again in a positive mood, leading to a rich tapestry which gently brings the music back to the ground. Joy abounds here, it is full of romance. The piece gathers impetus for a time and then it slowly falls apart. In the penultimate bars it blatantly quotes the opening measures of Debussy’s string quartet (reviewed May 2016) before it comes to a stop. Magical!

The second movement also begins slowly, this time with an attractive, almost romantic melody. It’s so fine, the composer repeats it and builds to a climax, before dropping back. The cello enters with an aching solo passage and is absorbed back into the ensemble. Again the intensity drops and the violin sustains the mood. It eventually lifts with all instruments working together in harmony for the greater good. Now we are moving towards the end and the cello again takes precedence. The first hint of a real tempo change comes with the strings supporting the violin as it gently comes to rest, and it is over.

The third movement is bright and breezy, the violin leading over some fine ensemble work. This playful section continues for some time before seguing into a gentle mood. This too, is a long section and I can even hear a little Dvorak in the melody. When it eventually changes, it introduces the only drama in the work. The serious tone is soon swept away by the first violin, which takes things into a minor mood, for the first time in the work. After a short static passage, the music rises again. It positively races for a time, and then returns to a melancholy mood, and takes the piece out with a Dvorakian flourish!

Faure wrote his quartet in 1924, the last year of his life. He opens his first movement in a rubato manner with the cello featured, in a minor mode, until the quartet eventually breaks into tempo with a positive passage. The music now returns to the opening, this time with a lot more support for the cello. Ascending lines give a feeling of immense exhilaration before dropping back to the opening melody. A new passage takes shape, very beautifully. Gently moving forward, it too lays out a carpet for the violins to ply their trade. Melodies abound in this measured section. The cello returns to lead the ensemble through a quiet passage to the end.

The opening of the second movement reveals a deep feeling. The tempo starts to be obvious as the ensemble supports the first violin in a charming passage. You can feel the intensity rise and fall as the violin leads the way. A positive mood emerges and the music drops back to a lamenting passage. The constant tempo gives the movement substance, leading to a very broad, expansive section. The violins express freely, moving through a slight crescendo, before dropping back into a minor key. The cello returns to lead the ensemble until the violins feel a need to take over. The mood of this movement is wonderful, so gentle and melodic. It’s music that takes you somewhere warm and comfortable.

Solo cello opens the third, and final movement, before dropping back into a supporting role. The mood is mostly positive, occasionally with a touch of angst. The minor key adds to this feeling. The cello returns again to implement a change. There is an air of mild, but palpable, tension. The violin sketches out a poignant melody, very charming. The tension rises ever so slightly as Faure works this mood for several minutes. I gradually realised that this mood is the movement! As usual, the music ends with a brief flourish.

These two pieces are highlights of the Late Romantic string quartet repertoire. The French certainly have shown a gift for romance in this genre.

There are many individual recordings of the two pieces available. I could only find two pairings, which I have not heard. These are by the Ysaye Quartet and the Jupiter String Quartet, both on Amazon US. The works are also available to sample on Spotify.

These quartets are both available on youtube. Chausson here and Faure here.

Listenability: Let’s just say they have a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’.

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