Austrian composer Joseph Marx [1882-1964] wrote three string quartets. His first quartet in A major, was written in 1936, rearranged in 1948, and renamed as Quartetto Chromatico. Thus the First quartet also became the last that he published. The other two were written in the intervening years.
The work in question opens with a lush set of chords which set up a fine mood. Slowly, individual melodies begin to emerge and become quite stately. A drop in the dynamics leads to a slightly winsome section before moving into a duet for the two violins. Now the full ensemble join in and the cello plays a repeated motif. The music never remains still for long, and there is plenty of harmonic movement. There is a catchy passage where the violins converse. Now a solo violin leads into a new, poignant section which is much sparser than that which we have previously heard. This is a terrific piece of Romantic writing, which continues for some time. A change to a minor chord acts as a bridge to a very attractive melodic passage, reminiscent of Dvorak, which rises and falls with both violins being particularly active. A more gentle mood emerges and the violins spin out sweet melodies with a minor feeling. One last time, the violins move into a new mood which leads to a conclusion on three, measured chords.
The second movement commences in a positive fashion, quite rhythmic and engaging. The violins surge briefly but are slowed by a pizzicato relief, which is very attractive. An open feeling leads to a slightly crowded moment, which morphs into a cello-led feeling where both violins carry the music forward. There is a depth to this feeling that is sustained until the violins become more animated, in a Modern way. The dynamics rise and the piece ends on a fluttering violin section with a strong final chord.
The third movement is marked sehr langsam und ausdrucksvoll which is German for ‘very slowly and expressively’. Slow and expressive it is, which is my kind of music. The violins are very sparse as they investigate alluring melodies over minimal accompaniment. This is classic Romantic writing. The ensemble insert occasional lamenting phrases; the cello is wonderful here. It is a very taut atmosphere, as the violins pursue a specific feeling of great depth. Some lightly chaotic passages occur and there are some fine harmonised melodic lines. The two violins point to the conclusion, which is a sustained violin note. This is a wonderful movement, filled with melancholia.
The final movement again starts in a Dvorakian manner, bringing with it a positive mood. The tempo is quite brisk and the two violins project joyous melodic lines. A change comes over the piece and the tempo slows to a walk as the violins continue with their stately phrases. There is a dance-like quality for a time, which morphs into a feeling similar to the opening. Shrill violins hesitate, to create a gentle mood. Suddenly a short, intense rhythmic passage ensues, and the violins end on a chord.
It never ceases to amaze me that so many wonderful quartet styles existed in Europe from 1900-1950. For me it was the zenith of the string quartet genre. Fortunately, there are many great quartets written in all time periods, but the above time frame has always held a special place in my heart.
These three quartets are freely available on Amazon US, UK and Presto as The Complete String Quartets, performed by the Thomas Christian Ensemble. The cover art is in the distinctive style of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, who commonly mingled with European Modern musicians of the early twentieth century.
Marx’s music is not on Spotify, but Quartetto Chromatico can be found on YouTube.
Listenability: Save for the slow movement, bright and breezy!
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