British composer Bernard Stevens [1916-1983] wrote two string quartets. Quartet No. 1 is in one movement and is entitled Theme and Variations. It is a fairly significant piece clocking in at over 18 minutes and is characterised by some very poignant sections contrasted with a dash of British pastoralism.
I am going to discuss String Quartet No. 2.
The piece opens with a lament that lingers for a while. To me, it’s not of this world. The violins spread their wings over a tapestry of much beauty. The flow is interrupted by some pizzicato and a tempo ensues. The violins dialogue wonderfully well together. The tempo transitions into another lament. The accompaniment is truly wonderful, a beautiful background. After a time the tempo lifts again and the violins build into a stately theme. A long descending melody brings us back to the lament. Again, the backing is marvellous as it evokes the introduction. The end comes with the two violins playing enticing, sustained tones.
The second movement, marked presto, begins with some light abstraction until it proceeds into some bright flourishes. The cello is prominent, but the violins spur the movement forward. The tempo drops and a quiet passage briefly ensues until the tempo rises again. This time it is very forceful and shimmering violins present a most attractive passage which goes out with a flourish.
The next movement opens in a similar manner to that of the first; it’s quite transcendent. Violins harmonise over a delicate accompaniment. There is no forward movement here, it is pure atmosphere. The cello plays its role in this mood which is sustained for a long passage. The volume slowly builds and there is slightly more intensity. This drops back to another lament as the violins are very expressive. A flurry develops and we now have forward movement for a time. A long, sturdy cello line leads the violins towards the conclusion of the movement.
There is no gap before the final movement and it begins at an allegro tempo. This is a very combative passage, as the violins and cello compete. The volume drops slightly but the duelling continues. There are some chordal interjections. The music then cuts back to nothing, again evoking the opening movement. This is a most mesmeric passage, with very subtle playing. Now the tempo is restored, albeit quietly until the violins engage to the point of crescendo. There are many flourishes as the piece moves towards its conclusion which is orchestral-like.
This is a fine, thoughtful work; well worth hearing. Coupled with the Theme and Variations there is also a Lyric Suite for String Trio on the CD. These pieces are both cut from the same cloth as the second quartet and are quite introspective. The disc, by the Delme Quartet is titled Chamber Music For Strings.
It is available on Amazon US and UK and the Second String Quartet is on youtube.
Listenability: Takes me to a new and wonderful soundworld.
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