LEO BROUWER – String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3

Cuban composer Juan Leovigildo Brouwer Mezquida [born 1939] wrote at least four string quartets. He is probably better known for his guitar works, some of which I have, but I will be discussing two of his string quartets, which are very fine.

SQ No.1 is titled To the Memory of Bela Bartok. Written in 1961, it contains four movements.

The first movement is very brief and opens with a strong melodic motif, which is repeated. It then moves into a slightly abstract folk-like section. A solo cello passage goes into a quite intense violin mood. This gives way to the opening motif which leads to the conclusion.

The next movement features two slightly melancholic violins as they work their way through some tender melodies. The cello enters with a prominent statement which begins a rhythmical passage. Now a solo violin takes over and leads the ensemble through a densely textured section, which fades to a lyrical melody which sees the end of this, again, relatively short movement.

The third movement, marked lento, is the emotional heart of the work. It opens with a longing melody over sustained notes, save for a restless cello melody. This is very gentle music. The two violins strike out on their own for a time before the cello enters again with deep, melodic phrases. A pause leads to a busy violin pizzicato, which is punctuated by ensemble chords. The opening mood returns and a violin laments. An ensemble arpeggio thickens the texture, but the violin is persistent. This section is ever so quiet. Nearing the end, the intensity lifts slightly before a violin fades out.

The final movement begins in a very pulsating manner with strong violin and cello parts. The cello takes over and, in its lower register, crafts a melody which is joined by the violins. There is tension in the air as the rhythm drives the movement forward. This gives way to a lilting passage with some beautiful, winsome melodies. A change brings a slight dissonance to the now rhythmic nature. A torrid violin section leads to an abrupt end.

To me, this quartet doesn’t evoke Bartok but that’s okay; it shouldn’t have to. It’s a rich work, filled with many interesting textures.

The Third Quartet is made up of four named movements.

Ritual Voice for New Year’s Eve – Gentle, ascending notes begin this movement and the motif is repeated several times, before an intense violin brings in a slightly dissonant passage, which works itself into a tempo. A viola ostinato emerges and the violins drift ever so lightly across this feeling. Now there is some melodic development and the intensity rises with other instruments picking up on the ostinato motif. A sudden stop leads to a chaotic passage which eventually gives way to a final chord.

Through the Body of the Wind – This movement drifts into existence as the violins set up a sparse mood. Now some positive, slightly frantic solo violin gives way to a gentle passage and a lone violin soars into its high register, with random notes from elsewhere. Rhythmic interjections occur sporadically but the violins continue with their sparsity. A quiet, rumbling sound leads to a fade-out.

Impossible Dance – A repeated violin note introduces this, the third movement. After several flourishes, the other instruments enter. The intensity ebbs and flows and a familiar melody takes shape. A frantic violin phrase brings in a pulse with sparse violin over the top of a gentle rhythmic motif. Now the melody begins to develop and all instruments have their role to play. A frenzied violin phrase lifts the intensity only for it to fall away again. A brief passage is followed a strong chordal rhythm which brings the conclusion.

The Rhythm of the Night Changed – A quivering cello lays a foundation for the final movement. Cross-rhythms abound until the piece settles into a new repeated motif. This is reminiscent of Philip Glass. Now the violins take centre stage with the cello occasionally adding interest. A peace briefly returns but  is soon overwhelmed by percussive violins. These develop in vigour until they hit the final chord.

This quartet feels a lot like program music as it constantly evokes images related to the respective movement titles. It probably contains references to Cuban melody and rhythm, of which I am unaware.

The CD under discussion, performed by the Havana Quartet, also contains SQ No. 2. which is in one movement and is a wild rhythmic ride.  There is also a short, but beautiful string trio, written in 1959. This disc is available on Amazon US and UK and is also on Spotify. There are movements from several quartets on youtube.

Listenability: Unique and contains fine melodies and rhythms.

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