MELOMANIA – Women Composers’ String Quartets

This compilation contains string quartets by the following female composers: Fanny Mendelssohn, Ethel Smyth, Germaine Tailleferre, Elizabeth Lutyens, Grażyna Bacewicz, Violeta Dinescu and Gloria Coates. The music spans 150 years of string quartet composition and is quite diverse. I have picked out several to review.

I am very fond of Tailleferre’s solo piano music; I would call it profound in its simplicity. She was also a member of Les Six, a group of French composers who eschewed the works of Wagner and the Impressionists, Debussy and Ravel. There is a fine article about this group on Wiki. Tailliferre’s short String Quartet from 1930 is a charming piece of writing. It opens in an expansive manner, with gentle melodies, all occurring at once. A change in tonality brings about a violin and cello dialogue. This music sounds contemporary, and the short first movement concludes with some fine melodies and a trill to end. The second movement is more rhythmic, and produces many attractive rural melodies. Gentle harmonies are of their time and continue to the conclusion. The end is two plucked pizzicato notes. The third movement is more intense with a pulsating melody accompanied by chordal interjections. Now it turns positively dark; all the while, the propulsion continues. There are many ebbs and flows here, at one time the violin soars into the high register, leaving the darkness behind. A violin motif builds in intensity, and there is such emotional depth. The violins create a fabulous mood which moves into a long, powerful passage. The harmonies mellow and the peace goes quiet, trailing out on a cello note.

The only string quartet of British composer Ethel Smyth was written from 1902-1912 and opens in a sentimental manner before taking on a rhythmic nature, which soon dissipates. A serious mood comes over the piece and the rhythm returns. Then there are some classic, warm folk-like melodies, which morph into a serious passage of tense violin. Dramatic violin flurries lead into a powerful chordal section, where the first violin dominates. Now the rhythm falls away for a time, which is reflective, only to return to a tempo. A galloping feeling briefly appears and the violins spin out strong melodies. A joyous mood ensues and the violins express freely over a warm background. Nearing the end, a slight darkness appears again and the violins become very animated, finishing with a double flourish.

Violeta Dinescu is Romanian and was born in 1953. Her named quartet, Lin Terra Lonhdana, (I wasn’t able to find a translation), is a slightly torrid affair. A dramatic, slightly aggressive opening, featuring mostly an atonal violin with a very crude tone, dominates proceedings. There is very little accompaniment but copious amounts of space in this introduction. As the piece progresses it features several string sound effects, including many glissandos. The arrival of the cello thickens the texture. This is very atonal music. A solo cello is taunted by the violins which quickly return to take charge. I’m hesitant to say that there are more sound effects than music, but at times it appears to be true. The use of microtones occurs as the piece progresses. The level of dissonance also increases. I’m now lost in sound as the first violin transcends music in its endeavours. More aggression follows, with agitated string sound effects. The ending is very hostile.

Of course, there are many contrasts on this CD, due to the long time period over which these pieces were composed. There is some very fine music to be heard here.

This CD, titled Melomania and performed by the Fanny Mendelssohn Quartet, is available on Amazon US and UK, Spotify and YouTube.

Listenability: A very mixed bag, mostly quite accessible, some reservations.

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2 thoughts on “MELOMANIA – Women Composers’ String Quartets”

  1. Hi Steve,

    I’ve already reviewed Bacewicz (July 2016) and I know Luytens and Coates. I don’t like to review much abstruse modern music but they are both on the list for the future!

    JH

  2. You probably would have liked Grażyna Bacewicz, since she was a very emotional and stormy composer. I’ve got a lot of her tense chamber music.

    Elizabeth Lutyens was a Webern disciple whose work was very abstruse, but I like the cinematic quality of her music.

    Gloria Coates is a love-her-or-hate-her composer whose glacial glissandi are like tidal waves of sound. It goes without saying I’m in the love-her camp.

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