JOHN ROSE – The Two String Quartets

I have been concentrating on reasonably Modern quartets lately so I thought I would try something a little more conservative, but still contemporary. British composer John Rose [born 1928], wrote two string quartets. They are both one-movement works, each lasting over 20 minutes.

SQ No. 1 opens quietly with two violins. A dissonant chord doesn’t do anything to change the mood; the two violins remain focussed on their melodic development. Eventually the ensemble gathers forces but keeps the same slightly dissonant atmosphere; this is very gentle music. A pause brings about a more dominant violin and a stronger melody. This is carried along with some fine work from the cello as it moves to the centre of the sound. At around four minutes, the piece becomes energised and the music is dance-like.  This mood is sustained for a time, constantly being subject to variations. It is ever so mildly chaotic with overlapping melodies to the fore. This section is sustained for around six minutes and probably overstays its welcome.

The two violins introduce a more propulsive nature for a time and then drift back into a dance-like feeling. With pizzicato accompaniment, the mood is quite light. A new passage ensues with a call and response between the instruments before a new motif takes over; it’s constantly changing and the violins continue to paint their images. Now the tempo stops and there is a rubato dialogue. A solo violin begins a new section, joined by the second violin. The cello sweeps in to provide a harmonic backdrop. The tempo returns and a few shaky chords are heard, then the violins return to their dialogue. The music is propelled forward as we near the end; the violins gradually lift in intensity and with a flourish, we have a conclusion.

Most of Rose’s compositions were completed later in life; the above quartet being composed in 1997. I find this music to be quite conservative in the light of that date.

The second quartet was composed in 1999 and begins with a lamenting violin melody, together with a sustained cello and a wandering second violin. Now the full ensemble enter at a very measured pace. Contrasting cello lines provide interest as the violins meander. The cello briefly moves into a rhythmic motif, then has a moment of development before returning to the motif. The music moves effortlessly between these two cello patterns until it settles on a fast motif, with the violins just keeping up. More dialogue occurs and the mood starts to become a little feisty; there is plenty of forward movement here, together with several harmonic changes. The cello exchanges rhythmic phrases with the violins until the violins conclude the section.

A new mood, slightly abstract, appears as cello and violins engage again in their dialogue. Now we have a section of solo violin breaking the mood which, as in the previous quartet, probably went on for a bit long with minimal interest. Joined by the second violin, the sound becomes quite thoughtful; the cello enters. This is a beguiling piece of writing, with a lot of music going on. Suddenly everything stops. A creeping mood develops as the ensemble examine a new soundscape. The music is laced with tension as it struggles to sustain this atmosphere, which is maintained to the end.

Again, I find this quartet to be quite conservative; I guess the composer is just writing in the style that he developed through his long life.

There are also three solo piano pieces on this disc, two Preludes and Fugues and An Essay on DSCH, which was Dimitri Shostakovich’s musical moniker. In German it represents the notes D, E-flat, C and B. More info can be found on Wiki. Presumably the piece used that motif at some point. To be honest I didn’t listen to the piano pieces so I have no opinion.

Back to the string quartets. They can be found on a disc titled Rose: String Quartets 1 & 2 by The Edinburgh Quartet on Amazon US and UK. They are also on Spotify and youtube.

For anyone interested in alternative views, I came across this page while searching for the composer’s birthday. There are some interesting coincidences, but I didn’t read these reviews until I had finished mine. Honest!

Listenability: They sound older than they are and they contain a hint of Shostakovich.

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