ALEXANDER GLAZUNOV – String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4

Russian composer Alexander Glazunov [1865-1936] wrote seven string quartets. I have selected Nos. 3 and 4, both in four movements, for their Late Romantic beauty, charm and zest.

String quartet No. 3, titled Slavonic, opens with a gentle mood as a violin develops pastoral melodies, to a wonderfully subtle accompaniment. There is a hint of Tchaikovsky here, as a gentle mood is maintained. A new melody introduces a slightly more vigorous tone; the cello rumbles in the background. Now the violins dominate, but still in a subtle manner. A pizzicato passage is very delicate, introducing a new melody which leads to the conclusion. This is a very sweet, measured movement.

A solo cello line introduces the next movement, which is then picked up by the violins. Slowly, they develop the melody with wonderful harmonies. This is a tender sound, rich in the Romantic tradition. The violins continue to form beautiful lines, with variations provided by the ensemble. Nearing the end, the music becomes almost choral as it concludes peacefully.

The third movement features a gentle rhythmic folk-like motif, which underpins the development. This  is taken up by the ensemble, leading to a rich harmonic background. A pause precipitates another strong, folk-like melody. Now the violins double the tempo in a dance-like fashion. This subsides and the previous melody is revisited. It has a pulsating feeling, but remains gentle, with occasional rhythmic forays occurring. The solo violin is featured prominently, and the mood becomes quite precious. Now the dance feeling returns, and the movement ends on a flourish.

The final movement is an energised dance. After a time, the intensity is reduced but the propulsion is still there. A recapitulation follows. A new section brings a searing violin into play, and several changes in dynamics occur. The dance tempo returns, and a solo cello leads to a brief pause. A lyrical violin leads into a slightly lamenting mood. Ascending violins reintroduce a vigorous tempo and dance above the ensemble. Another lamenting passage gives way to a rhythmic violin, swirling to a Russian sound from the ensemble.  A jaunty feeling develops with a short period of melodic development. Again we have a brief lament followed by another hectic passage. This music won’t settle. A stately section doesn’t last long, but is repeated. The end is a race to the finish line, and a final chordal flourish.

String quartet No. 4 commences with a wonderfully lush chordal passage, interspersed with a marvellous violin line. The chords continue for some time until they finally break out into a brisk pace, the violins flowing, with the cello offering great support. This melody is reworked and the tempo drops back a tad, with violin and cello offering a call and response section before the violins move on, again at a moderate tempo. Pizzicato provides a variation to the accompaniment. The sound now becomes very gentle for a time, then we have an evocation of an earlier melody. The chordal sounds are alluring and the violins create sensitive melodies. The closing passage has a bit of a Dvorakian sound with cello adding to fine folk-like melodies. There is another spirited race to the end.

The next movement is again contemplative, with longing melodic lines probing a subtle background, which continues for some time, until slowly the second violin and viola come into play. A slight forward movement is present, and a lyrical passage develops. This section is beguiling, and very pleasant. Now the first violin becomes more expansive and leads the ensemble with increased lyricism into an extended passage. The end is very graceful.

A propulsive mood opens the third movement. The tempo is quite brisk and the violins respond to each other with great enthusiasm. This movement is essentially a cornucopia of rhythmically charged melodic lines, and continues with great vigour to a conclusion.

The final movement starts with a poignant layered texture, which is quite moving. It soon breaks into tempo and the violins dance in a very positive manner. This is Glazunov’s voice, a light flowing sense of melody and an almost orchestral concept. He also develops melodies over a long time frame. In this instance there is a rhapsodic feeling for a time, and a sense of the lyrical continues. A change in the intensity comes about with shimmering violins and rapid lines. The ending is a series of orchestral thrusts and a final chord.

I’ve realised that Glazunov’s music is nearly always gentle, even when tempos are high. It certainly makes for peaceful listening.

Both quartets are available on a single CD at Amazon UK. There is also an added piece for string quartet and horn on this version. Amazon US has a different set of recordings altogether. I haven’t heard them all but I would expect them to be of a high standard as I find these works to be beautifully crafted.

There are several quartets on YouTube.

Listenability: Delightful late Romantic works.

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