DAG WIREN – Quartets of Great Substance – SQ No. 4

Swedish composer Dag Wiren [1905-1996] wrote five string quartets. He is a fine composer and I love the progression from the simple folk-like harmonies of the early quartets to the rhythmic and harmonic complexities of the later works.

I am going to discuss SQ No. 4, which is in five movements.

The work opens with a solo violin, very beautiful, which is then joined by the viola. The melody is slightly reminiscent of the old French nursery rhyme, Frère Jaques (Brother Jack), but in a minor key. The viola plays a harmony to the violin melody and this conversation goes on for a minute or so, with variations being slowly introduced. Suddenly, the violin leaps into life and all instruments play a part in a slightly chaotic passage. This new mood slowly subsides and the solo violin returns to the opening melody and the ensemble dance around, over and under the violin. The music breaks into a racing tempo with pizzicato effects. It concludes and the opening violin returns with the viola in a call and response passage. The indescribably beautiful melody gives way to a few pizzicato strokes and this magnificent movement is over.

The next movement, which is quite short, opens with a minimalistic motif and the first violin comes in over the top. The motif is constantly changing and increases in intensity. There is now a third layer, with the viola becoming prominent. The cello enters, with its own contribution; now we have excitement with much rhythmic punctuation. It doesn’t last and the intensity drops back to a violin melody over a walking cello line which leads to a quiet conclusion. This is a small gem in the scheme of things.

The third movement is even shorter. It opens with a repeated, frenetic little passage which is punctuated by various string sound effects and cello statements. It ends on a loud cello note.

The next movement features the viola and a lamenting mood. A violin imparts some colour with sparse phrases; the viola keeps rising in pitch and the violin goes with it. A cello sustained note brings in a variation leading to a return of the opening texture. Again the cello initiates further development; there is some fabulous writing here. I feel like I am invading the composer’s personal space by listening in on his musings. The opening returns, which is wonderful and the viola and violin see the movement out. It ends as it started. This is another classic movement; quite enchanting.

The beginning of the final movement is completely different from anything else in the piece. It is a brisk, brash statement with the ensemble absolutely pulsating. Eventually the tempo relents and we are left with a musical conversation featuring heavy use of pizzicato. The violins make a statement and the cello responds. A quivering violin appears in the background and gradually increases in volume. A heavy cello statement breaks the mood and walks like a jazz bass as the violins quiver. The intensity rises again and eventually drops back to a solo violin. It’s all over.

I am very fond of this CD – String Quartets 2-5 by the Lysell Quartet and had to have it for myself. Amazon UK has it for 400 pounds but they have copies on Amazon US for a regular price. I was able to obtain a copy from www.arkivmusic.com.

There are two different versions on Spotify, including the Lysell. There are also several movements from SQ Nos. 3 and 4 on youtube.

I intend to revisit Wiren again in the future. Let’s hope he stays available. I shall make it the near future!

Listenability: My kind of string quartets. The progression from No. 2 to 5 is very interesting.

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