ARNOLD ROSNER – String Quartets Nos. 2 and 5

American composer Arnold Rosner [1945-] wrote six string quartets. Apparently many of his compositions were influenced by his original Jewish beliefs, but also by Catholicism (thanks Wiki). I shall allude to that concept later. Both String Quartets Nos. 2 and 5 are one-movement works.

String Quartet No. 2 was written in 1963 and revised in 1993. The work opens with a very resonant, reflective cello line. As the other instruments enter, a melancholy fugal mood evolves. A chordal passage allows the cello to answer and there is a harmonic change. A series of rhythmic chords follows, and a quivering violin section allows the cello to make a substantial melodic statement. After a time the music drops back into a pastoral feeling which is quite fetching. A solo violin gently investigates a melody, over a peaceful harmonic background.

Now the harmonies disappear, leading to a modal atmosphere. All instruments come together to create open melodic lines; this is very peaceful. There is also movement, as the violins create a dance-like mood at a moderate tempo. An interjection of four chords is followed by a return to the dance. The melodies are more serious now, and also more rhythmically incisive. This feeling doesn’t last for long however, and it leads into an extended, reflective passage. Eventually, a tempo is established and the music almost becomes folk-like, but for the intensity that inevitably takes over.

A pause brings a section of slightly dissonant chords, leading to several solo cello statements. The music then becomes ever so quiet, and a violin rises high into the sky with minimal accompaniment. What a beautiful sound. Slowly, the intensity rises, before dissolving back into another pastoral section. A light sense of dissonance colours the music, and a slightly orchestral-like passage brings forth lamenting melodies. A cello leads the violins to a faded conclusion.

String Quartet No. 5 was written in 1977, so, in a sense, it is earlier than the revised second quartet. It begins in a modal form, with one chord introducing a solo violin, soon to be joined by a second. This an incredibly profound passage. The cello makes a pensive melodic statement. There is no tempo here, it is pure atmosphere. It does have a sense of the spiritual, with the two violins expressing gently via the modal scale. Another solo cello statement occurs; this too, stays within the mode. An ascending and descending theme seems to be building, before being interrupted by a solo violin.

Suddenly there is rhythm and harmonic movement. The first violin moves with the harmonies, and fashions a recurring phrase that cries out. This, again, is a wonderfully introspective section. The modal feeling returns and the violin expresses a melody while the cello inserts random notes. Now we have rhythm once more, and subtle harmonic movement. Even now the violin sounds modal as the harmonic changes are rare.

Another rhythmic passage ensues, with sword-like ensemble interjections. A period of strong chords drops back into a section of violin over a pizzicato viola. The modal feeling persists, and gentle violin statements carry the work forward. A more complex passage arises, and the tension between the violins is palpable. A motif develops and the violins play with strength, with the ensemble pushing out chords in a serious manner. As this point, the intensity drops, but the tempo remains; we are back to harmonic movement, and the first violin swirls above a striking accompaniment. The violin picks up on a melodic phrase and repeats it to a faded close.

These are basically peaceful works. Emotionally, they are governed by the persistent use of a modal approach. Even when changes in harmony occur, the melodies do not necessarily embrace the changes, as one might expect. To me, the pieces are contemplative, but apart from the one mentioned section, I didn’t feel that they were overtly spiritual. Of course, they may have been spiritually inspired.

Along with String Quartet No.3 and a Duet for Violas, this music is on a CD titled Chamber Music of Arnold Rosner, Vol. 2, which is available on Amazon US and UK. The complete CD is on YouTube.

Listenability: Basically introspective, with an occasional rhythmic edge. Conservative for its time.

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