STEVEN GERBER – String Quartets Nos. 4, 5 and 6

American composer Steven Roy Gerber [1948-2015] wrote at least six string quartets. The three quartets that are available on my review CD are relatively short so I intend to discuss them all.

No. 4, in three movements, commences with a lyrical melodic and chordal passage. The ensemble then begin to ask questions in a firm manner. This is followed by a rich pastoral passage which is dense in texture. Now the violins erupt into a furious passage before dropping back into the pastoral mood; this is reminiscent of the opening and leads to a tender ending.

The next movement opens with a solo violin and a wonderful, wailing melody; quite marvellous really. A hint of pizzicato joins in and brings a tempo into play. It disappears as quickly as it started. The violin raises its intensity; it is very powerful. A cello sets up an ostinato for a time, followed by some interjections, before dropping back into the ostinato. The violin continues on its dissonant journey until the end comes with a solo cello note. I don’t believe the second violin or viola were evident in this movement.

A loud fanfare introduces the final movement. The cello makes assertive statements against a background of pulsating violins. A hectic passage ensues with the violins being very active. This leads to a very urgent passage where the ensemble projects a dense texture. There is little melody, but plenty of almost random material presented. Towards the end, an epic passage terminates the quartet.

No. 5 is in two movements. It starts with a dissonant chordal section featuring strong abstraction. A change brings about a collection of harmonised melodies that are initially very powerful, but gradually drop in intensity. A passage emerges that is filled with sensitive melodies and viola pizzicato accompaniment. Suddenly there is more space as a violin asserts itself over ensemble movement. A pause brings in a violin drifting across various textures. Now the violin stabs viciously and then returns to the previous feeling, which is now very mellow and positive. More violin interjections lead back to a dissonant sound and a powerful conclusion.

The second movement has a very dissonant opening which doesn’t last. The violins lead the music through several passages of abstraction before returning to the sound of the introduction; again, only for a short time. The abstraction returns with string sound effects. Now a slightly conservative passage emerges, before drifting back into the previous nebulous moods. Some melodies can be heard for a time, it then returns to pure abstraction. I can’t quite pin this movement down. It keeps returning to two different moods which are developed and redeveloped each time.

No.6 is in three movements. Strangely, it starts with heavy melodies played over a classic Dvorakian trill. The violin converses with a strong ensemble. A brief pause returns to that trill and a texture of great intensity. Sometimes, there is a brief quiet passage and then, the intensity returns. It’s almost as if the violin is the accompaniment to the machinations of the ensemble. It all ends with a flourish.

The second movement is very short at 1:23 and features a strong cello motif, with an almost industrial sound. It persists with this machine-like feeling, dropping slightly in intensity to conclude.

The final movement opens uncharacteristically quietly, and slightly mournful. A tempo sets in and a lightness takes over. Violins investigate rhythmic possibilities and sparse melodies. A powerful, rearing cello leads the next intense passage until the feeling cuts back to the violins. An engaging chordal passage takes us to the end.

This is a composer with a unique approach. It’s modern and it seems that one trait of modernity is to be unencumbered by tradition in a quest for a personal expression. This is definitely the case with Gerber. He is never aggressive but his attention to detail within abstract textures is very satisfying.

The disc also contains a three-movement work, Fantasy, Fugue & Chaconne for Violin and Cello.

This CD, titled Steven R. Gerber: String Quartets and performed by The Amernet String Quartet, is obtainable from Amazon US and UK. It is also available on Spotify and YouTube.

Listenability: Modern, but not avante-garde.

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