ERNST KRENEK – String Quartet No. 7

Ernst Krenek  [1900-1991] was an Austrian, later American, composer of Czech origin. He wrote eight string quartets. I discussed the Fourth String Quartet in August, 2016, and noted that it was the last quartet composed before he completely changed to a serial-based approach. No. 7 is purported to be completely serial. It was composed in 1944 and contains five movements.

The work opens in a freely melodic style, with abstract statements being made by the whole ensemble. The two violins are especially prominent for a time, until a cello led interlude thickens the texture. Eventually, the mood abates only to be resurrected with some striking atonal violin lines. The cello underpins this section beautifully and the abstraction continues. Nearing the end, the cello moves deep into its low register and contributes a moving solo passage, with occasional accompaniment from the ensemble. The music then moves straight into the next movement, without a pause.

Now the cello delivers another sombre solo section, and the violins develop abstract lines around it. There is no tempo here, just slow, deliberate phrases. This is a fabulous, early modern, abstract mood; it’s very peaceful. The cello engages again as the violins continue with slow, sweeping melodies allowing it to contribute to a powerful moment. The cello then recedes, leaving the violins to lament. Now we are down to one violin, which lets us down slowly.

The third movement opens with a solo cello statement soon to be joined by a pizzicato viola. The violins continue with their previous dialogues and there is much abstract expression here. I have always been totally fascinated by these intangible moods. The end is a series of sustained, aggressive violin tones.

The fourth, very short movement, opens loudly, but soon meanders into a solo violin, with minimal input from the ensemble. There are murmurings from the cello, and the first violin is oh, so sparse. It ends on a faded note, at 1:41.

The final movement has a tempo, albeit a little obscured. Harmonised descending melodic violin lines lead to a jaunty, spirited mood, which persists; it’s a great passage. Now the two violins engage in a measured chaos, until the cello returns. Another longing feeling ensues, as the violins casually meander through a philosophical mood. The violins now launch into an excitable state which concludes the work.

I call this piece modern, because while being serial, it just sounds atonal to me. Whether it was created using a tone-row is all a bit academic for my purposes. It is not particularly challenging, if you are used to abstract music. I really like it.

The CD under discussion is titled Krenek – String Quartets Nos. 1 and 7 by the Petersen Quartet. It is freely available on Amazon US, UK and Presto. Most of his other quartets are no longer with us. The disc is on Spotify and the work is on YouTube.

Listenability: Very fine work in a mildly Modernist style.

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