GEORGE KONTOGIORGOS – String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3

Greek composer George Kontogiorgos [born 1945] wrote three string quartets. To my ears, the chronology of these works reveal them to be less modern as they evolve. The first, titled Unicorn, is quite contemporary and very interesting. However I am going to discuss the second and third quartets, and will endeavour to illustrate the above concept. Strangely enough, none of them made it into my primary reference work The Twentieth Century String Quartet – An Historical Introduction and Catalogue. Either the composer was overlooked or they were written after 2000, in which case, he started late!

The second string quartet, titled de Profundis, is in three movements. It features a moderate level of abstraction, which I particularly enjoyed. It starts with some lightly dissonant chords before a hint of a melody starts to emerge. The composer seems to be more concerned with rhythm at this point and there are some punctuating moments. The two violins, after a period of meandering, engage in an atonal conversation. The cello adds to the mix of sounds; it’s very busy. The violins continue with their atonal musings until the conclusion.

The second movement is very short, about two minutes. It opens with a two-note viola motif, and after each set of four bars, a new instrument appears to build the texture. A pulsating feeling dominates proceedings, which end with the two violins having a final engagement.

The last movement is based on a moderately dissonant three-note viola motif, which occurs in different guises throughout the movement. A brief, but slightly hectic violin exchange occurs around the motif as they accentuate with forceful phrases. A pause ensues and we hear the opening viola motif again. The violins first harmonise it, then develop the motif; one of the violins drops into pizzicato for a time. This is quite atonal. The viola motif is now distorted rhythmically and it gives way to the two violins, one in the high register, leading to a frantic passage which drifts back into an eerie soundscape. The distorted motif returns and the violins mock it as they swoop and fly. Now we are back to the original motif which is soon subject to fierce opposition. Every time the motif is repeated, it is changed by the ensemble, usually frantically. An explosive passage gives way to the motif one last time and a harmonised version concludes the piece. This is a fabulous piece of writing, very evocative!

The third quartet is titled Byzantine, which perhaps explains its nature. It contains four movements. The opening has a baroque stateliness about it. The two violins carry poignant melodies while the cello provides a harmonic underpinning. They maintain a partnership for the duration of the movement; it sounds like music from another time. When it finished, I paused it and the atmosphere, almost ancient, seemed to linger for a while.

The next movement again starts with a gentle flowing melody. The violins respect the sparsity of the moment as they tread lightly through the cello harmony. There is some development, but the violins stay close to each other. The music meanders as notes join together to create a most gorgeous canvas of sound. This is delicate music, again, not of its age.

The third movement opens ever so quietly with an ascending scale using all four instruments. The phrase is continued a number of times until the violins move off into their own mood with spacious overlapping melodies. Now the opening phrase is repeated a number of times, at a quicker tempo. This time there are variations on the phrase. The intensity rises, but not for long as the violins continue their development.

The brief final movement is much brighter and for the first time in the quartet, we have energy. The violins and cello are very expressive, spinning out melodic lines, seemingly from long ago.

I don’t know what to make of this music. These two quartets could have been written by different composers in different eras. Make of it what you will. I find it to be magnificent!

The CD is titled de Profundis, performed by The New Hellenic Quartet is available as a download on Amazon US and UK, and Presto Classical. It is also on Spotify (watch the spelling) and all of the quartets are on youtube.

I have a friend whose life ambition is to find this music on CD. I wish him well! If anybody notices it anywhere, could you please let me know? 🙂

Listenability: A very diverse blend of fascinating, sometimes lyrical, music.

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