JEWISH STRING QUARTETS – A Compilation

I’ve only once posted a compilation before (Balanescu Quartet – June 2016), but this one is intriguing. The composers represented are Darius Milhaud, Abraham Wolf Binder, Ruth Schonthal, John Zorn and Sholom Secunda. I have selected the two longest pieces for discussion.

Ruth Schonthal’s String Quartet No. 3, In Memoriam Holocaust consists of two named movements. This work is performed by the Bingham Quartet.

The first movement is titled Grave. It opens with a wonderful chordal passage, with no melodic development but quite expressive, in a serious manner. It pauses and then returns to the opening mood. The cello soars and the individual voices start to become clear. Hyperactive violins quiver frantically until the music drops back to a quieter section. Violins constantly pierce the mood and cello interjections are also prominent. Now we have a plucked cello interlude leading into another cello-driven passage. This is quite intense as the violins reach for the sky; the ensemble provide striking chordal interjections. The intensity drops back to cello and one violin for a time. A recapitulation follows and the violins grate in their attack. String sound effects abound before a restless violin alternates with ensemble jabs and the intense violin signals the end of the movement.

The second movement is titled Lament and Prayer. A lone cello in a deep register introduces the second movement. It explores an ethnic melody at some length. Eventually a violin enters, with the cello persisting. Now a sustained chord sets the violins free to express themselves, again with ethnic-sounding melodies. There is a considerable amount of tension here. The violins are predominant again, working in a peaceful layer of sound. A solo violin begins and the second violin responds; there is some dialogue with the cello. The cello asserts itself with the violins conversing. The sound of the solo cello is deep and the cello passage is interspersed with quivering violins. As the end approaches violins speak out over a sustained cello background; the conclusion is solo cello. The writing for the cello is wonderful, bringing forth a powerful texture.

The second work is Sholom Secunda’s String Quartet in C minor, which is in four movements. It is quite long, clocking in at 30 minutes. It is performed by the Bochmann String Quartet.

This work opens with a symphonic chord which then forms the backing for a solo violin melody. The second violin enters and a dance-like passage ensues. A violin reaches into its highest register for a dramatic effect. The mood now becomes folk-like with simple melodies over simple harmonies. The cello takes over the melody for a time, but still maintaining the folk-like nature of the passage. Now the violins embark in a style reminiscent of the Baroque era. This is a most appealing section, very light and airy. A new melody appears, very Romantic in style. There is a lot of melodic development here. A change to a minor tonality increases the intensity and the violins are front and centre. There are some brief violin flourishes as the movement ends. To my ears, this is very Western-sounding music.

The next movement shows more of its Jewish roots. A quiet opening has a solo violin leading the ensemble; it rises and falls as it progresses and sometimes cries out in a lamenting manner. The melody is developed with both violins taking part. Now we have a new mood with the violins playing in a sparse manner with harmonics concluding this relatively short movement.

The third movement begins very folk-like; I think I hear a Jewish touch here. It is a very social mood, evoking gatherings of families. The opening melody is followed by a quick, dance-like tempo with ethnic scales to be heard. The intensity drops but the feeling remains the same. There is a false ending which introduces another Romantic melody, which eventually leaves the harmony behind and moves into a modal passage. The harmony returns and the melodies take account of this. This is followed by a quicker section with what I take to be ethnic rhythms. Finally we have another Romantic melody which finishes on a loud chord.

The final movement is the longest and commences with a bright passage. The melody is gentle and is complemented with interesting harmonies. The cello now leads the melody, which has morphed into a folk-like tune. The violins return to dominate but the cello occasionally has a significant role. Moving into a minor key, the music becomes gentle. This is a short passage and the feeling soon returns to a dance-like nature. An extended solo cello passage moves through a modal scale, with sporadic input from the other instruments. A slight ensemble flourish concludes the work. This is light music, optimistic in its melody, harmonies and mood.

The music from the other three composers is also quite interesting. I was surprised by the relatively mellow feeling of the John Zorn piece as his string quartets have so far proved to be totally impenetrable to me.

This Naxos CD, Jewish String Quartets is available on Amazon US and UK. It is also on Spotify. The Ruth Schonthal and Sholom Secunda quartets are on youtube; I didn’t look for the other pieces. The details of the CD can be found here.

Listenability: Two satisfying quartets and something different for the collection!

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