JOHN FERNSTROM – String Quartets Nos. 6 and 8

Swedish composer John Fernstrom [1897-1961] wrote eight string quartets. The sixth and eighth quartets are both fine, mature works.

String quartet No. 6 is in four movements. Strangely, it opens with a slight middle-eastern tinge. This continues for some time. It eventually morphs into a more Western sound. A sparkling violin line inserts a passionate feeling into the section before it drops back to a minimal instrumentation. The opening melodies return but they don’t sound so ethnic now, possibly due to the Western harmonies. The movement ends abruptly.

The next movement, marked lento, begins with sparse violins investigating their upper registers in a subdued manner. Interest is created by the cello, which plays a melodic role. The violins continue their musings and there is a brief period of intensity which subsides into a pause. When the music returns, it is powerful with slightly harsh violin lines. Again, this fades to a solo violin; the second violin and cello return in a pensive passage. It fades out with solo violin. This is quite delicate music.

The third movement is very short and hurried. The two violins engage with the occasional cello passage. Quivering violins are set against a pizzicato, then the opening theme returns; it is quite folk-like. The end comes quickly.

The final movement has a slight tango feeling as the violins spin out ethnic melodies. The harmonic background softens the mood. Now a solo violin takes flight and a flourish reintroduces the ensemble. An insistent first violin sustains the ethnic mood; it’s almost gypsy-like. Not what you would expect from a Swede. The flourish returns and the ensemble is energised. Syncopated interjections drive the violin melody forward and it concludes on a sweeping phrase.

The range of sounds in this work were quite a pleasant surprise.

String Quartet No. 8, again, is in four movements. The first movement is marked andante and is quite short. The opening melodic statements are very modal and lead to a stately sound. This is a gentle passage, evoking music from a previous age. The finish is a no-frills sustained violin note.

The second movement is even shorter and again not of this time. It opens with a prancing feeling and the violins pour out positive melodies at quite a brisk pace. This passage is all about the interplay between the violins; the cello is only heard sparingly. The two violins give a flourish and then finish on four held notes. This is a very likeable movement.

The next movement features the two violins, one in an extremely high register. It is a very delicate feeling. The cello makes a melodic contribution and then supports the violins in their endeavours. It briefly comes to the fore as the music takes on a modal feeling. A quite violin concludes. Again, I feel that this is music not of its time.

The final movement is in a jaunty waltz-time. The violins weave their way through several alluring melodies before the music briefly moves into double-time. A pause brings the cello into play, and it supports the violins. Now the tempo is back in double-time and sweeping violins express strong melodies. The violins resolve on a chord to complete the movement.

Not sure why, but I was actually expecting something avante-garde from Fernstrom; maybe I had him confused with Ferneyhough, but I was so wrong. His music has a timeless quality, I wouldn’t try to put a label on it. I found it to be terrifically positive, and uplifting.

This music is available on at least two discs. My review copy is on Naxos, by the Vlach Quartet, containing quartets 3, 6 and 8, at a very reasonable price. Another disc, by the Lysell Quartet contains quartets 4, 6, 7 and 8. This is quite pricey. The Vlach is on Spotify and there are some individual movements on youtube.

Listenability: Non-confronting, melodic music that would fit into any collection.

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