LARS-ERIK LARSSON – String Quartet No. 1 – Plus One

Early Modern Swedish composer Lars-Erik Larsson [1908-1986] wrote three string quartets and an early suite for string quartet, Intimate Miniatures (English translation). He studied under Alban Berg, but his quartets do not reflect this experience. To me, he is a twentieth century composer who looks back, rather than forward.

I am going to discuss String Quartet No. 1 and Intimate Miniatures, both performed by the Stenhammar Quartet.

The first numbered quartet, in three movements, opens in an optimistic mood with a harmonised cello and violin line. The violin eventually breaks free for a time, but the opening phrase reoccurs at various intervals. A pizzicato interlude leads to variations on the opening melody, and more harmonised cello and violin melodies unfold. The mood changes with the violin leading the way, and a very fluid ensemble background. It now becomes more abstract, before an extended pizzicato section ensues. The violins suddenly leap into a dialogue, with some atonal lines. The harmonisation of the melodies is particularly fine, especially when they include the cello. A pizzicato interlude brings us into a solo violin passage, which is the taken up by the ensemble; however the first violin dominates. The musical texture is now thickened, as it moves to a conclusion with a final, sweeping chord.

A violin duet introduces the second movement, with the second violin paraphrasing the melodies of the first. There is a lot of harmonic movement here, and the viola provides a subtle pizzicato accompaniment. The music comes to a standstill, and begins again with a violin and viola section. A pulse is created and the violins move forward, in duet formation again. The melodies now become busier and an animated pizzicato viola enters. Now the cello adds strong melodic lines, before retreating back into the ensemble. An extended section finally leads to a full sound. The movement starts to wind down and becomes very sparse, and soon peters out.

The final movement opens in a quick, but slightly stilted manner. There is a lot going on and the instruments seem to have a complex relationship. While the violins lead in a very forceful way, the accompaniment seem strangely independent. A very dynamic passage slowly fades to a whisper before leaping into a rhapsodic moment. The stilted style reappears momentarily, before we return to a positively racing section, which leads to the conclusion of the work.

This is a very busy, but charming quartet. It is replete with fine melodies, harmonic changes and strong rhythmic impetus.

I have a slight issue regarding Intimate Miniatures. On the recording, the movements are not played in order; in fact the first movement concludes the piece. I am going to take the movements in their numerical order, and shall treat it as one continuous piece.

The opening is a very slow, enchanting piece of writing. The ensemble all contribute an equal voice and a special mood is created. The music is filled with interplay and features a long fade out. A warm, melodic section follows. The work gathers intensity as the violins begin to assert themselves. A chordal passage is featured between violin statements. This is fine writing. A solo cello passage leads to a return of an earlier melody. It is very light and wistful; whimsical, even.

A new mood unfolds which has a dichotomy; there are strong positive melodies in the foreground, with a slight minor feeling to the accompaniment. This feeling dissipates and the violins lift up a notch in intensity. Now they positively dominate for a time. The dynamics rise again and then break into a quiet passage, where I recognise a melodic phrase that I have heard before. The positive nature continues at a moderate intensity, slowly increasing, before a brief conclusion.

A stately Haydn-esque melody appears and the ensemble are very warm in accompaniment. The melodies rise and fall in dynamics, but retain the stately feeling, albeit being updated for the twentieth century. A very beautiful passage follows with a violin in the high register bringing forth lines over a sparse background. A solo violin passage where the violin answers itself, is followed by a pastoral mood. A violin interjects with some dynamic statements, but order is soon returned. A plucked cello accompaniment is most pleasing.

A brisk section follows and the violins drive the music forward. There is a violin duet passage, which again builds into a tempo. The violins again assert themselves and, nearing the end, the violins play attractive harmonised lines, before ending the work in an abrupt manner.

These two pieces are quite conservative, but have a wonderful optimism and mostly, feature a strong pulse. I would categorise them as Early Modern.

This CD, Larsson : String Quartets is available at Amazon UK, but only through Amazon resellers. However there are new copies available, nine at time of writing. Amazon US has a different version and Presto has the Stenhammar String Quartet disc available as a download. Spotify has both versions, unfortunately there are only a few quartet fragments on YouTube.

Listenability: Very fine, but slightly conservative works.

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