American composer Jon Ward Bauman [1939-2009] wrote at least four string quartets.
String Quartet No. 1 is in four movements and is quite short. It opens with a beautiful cello line, and minimal violin support. The violins move into the picture and a wonderfully sparse, slow, modern mood is established. This mood builds from one of stasis to a violin-led section. There is a hint of dissonance and the cello has a significant role in the proceedings. I wish this could go on for ever, it’s so touching; the end comes quietly.
The next movement is dramatic, with strong interjections over an intangible background. The intensity rises and ends with a beautiful violin phrase. It’s all over at 1:36.
The third movement is even shorter, at 35 seconds. A flurry of violins deliver a slightly chaotic end to this miniature.
The final movement is again abstract. Violins express vague, sensitive feelings with some chaos. The ending is intense, and goes out on a chord.
This short quartet runs for about ten minutes and is reminiscent of the miniaturistic nature of some of Anton Webern’s later works.
The second quartet is again in four movements. After a strong opening flourish, the passage moves into a repeated, slightly atonal motif with some intensity. The music then ebbs and flows; a quiet cello line is supported by strange, distant violin phrases. This is pure bliss. The intensity is restored, but only for a short time; the distant violin phrases persist as the first violin drifts on the surface. Again, this a fabulous mood. A strong section of rhythmic punctuation leads to a hectic violin passage; atonal melodies unfold. This is very deep music, spinning out long violin lines to great effect. A repeated passage of ascending violin notes leads to a final chord.
The next movement is marked grave. The violins create a lamenting atmosphere throughout this static movement. This is a stunning piece of writing.
The third movement opens busily, with violin conversation and sections of pizzicato. So far these are the first optimistic sounds that I have heard; that soon changes as a solo violin fashions a disconsolate melody. Long, sustained notes are the order of the day and eventually a second violin joins the passage. Now the whole ensemble move forward, yet still retaining the mood. After a time the opening busyness returns with some effective chromatic phrases and eventually, some forceful playing to the end.
The final movement opens with a cello motif, at moderate tempo, which is taken up by the violins. Then the tempo is quickened with the same phrase being used. Now a sombre passage emerges with minimal action from the violins. The tempo returns and the violins flirt with atonality. A short pause leads to a brief recapitulation of the opening melody by the cello; the phrase is repeated with varying textures. A return of the sombre passage is most welcome, it’s a little like some of Morton Feldman’s work. This moves into a spiralling violin section where the notes come to rest in the highest register. The gentlest of sounds concludes the quartet.
These are absolutely marvellous quartets, filled with serious passages and fine contrast. I intend to discuss quartets 3 and 4 at another time.
This CD, String Quartets Nos. 1,2,3,4 performed by the Moyzes Quartet is available on Amazon US (very cheap) and UK. It is also on Spotify and there are several movements on youtube. You can listen to the complete SQs Nos. 1-4 on youtube here. (Thanks, Kai).
Listenability: Wonderful, meaningful quartets.
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