VIKTOR KALABIS – String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4

Czech composer Viktor Kalabis [born 1923] wrote seven string quartets. The review CD contains Nos. 3 to 6, all performed by different ensembles. I am going to discuss Quartets Nos. 3 and 4.

The Third Quartet was composed in 1977; is in three movements, and is performed by the Talich Quartet. The first, short movement opens with a spirited violin, soon to be joined by the other players. There is a slight tension, which breaks into a driving passage before the intensity drops and the violins craft atonal melodic duets. There is a hint of microtonality at times and the end comes with several more violin duet lines.

The next movement, marked adagio, begins in a very sparse, quiet mood where the violins could be early morning bird-calls. Into this eerie feeling steps the cello, with leads to a thickening of the texture for a time. A return to the opening mood again leads to more tension. Now the violins scurry with a repeated phrase and then lapse into silence. When they return, it is with an introspective purpose. One violin carries a lamenting melody as the other instruments probe the mood. The cello leads into another pause and there are virtually inaudible sounds to conclude. This is a very interesting movement, noticeable for its domination by introspection.

The final movement commences with tempo, the first that we have heard for a while. Harmonised violin lines alternate with seemingly random violin passages until powerful chords overtake the violins. Now there is plenty of music happening as the violins express freely. A fabulous descending motif is carried by all four instruments in turn. The violins continue in their excited state until an assertive solo cello passage leads to an exchange with the violins. The tension is now palpable as all instruments engage in rhythmic exchanges. The cello goes solo again, then chaos returns. The music is just so busy, until the tempo dissipates and we are left with a slow, dissonant passage where the violins feature large intervallic leaps. A motif from earlier is repeated and the violins are almost shimmering. That motif is referred to again, this time it is deconstructed. A solo violin moves into its highest register and slowly the other instruments make an appearance. A new section is filled with activity and violin flourishes. Strong, harmonised melodies abound and the end comes with a flurry of dissonant violins.

I find this to be a well-balanced work, with highly contrasting second and third movements. It works for me, but may be a little confronting for some.

String Quartet No. 4 was written in 1984 and is performed by the Doleazal Quartet. It is in one movement and bears the title Tribute to JS Bach. We shall see where that takes us.

There is no tempo specified, but it quietly drifts into a very sparse mood. The violins are conspicuous, but the cello also has an important role to play. The melodies are slightly longing, and very measured. Slowly some intensity is brought to the atmosphere as the violins lead into a pulsing passage. Their energy is gradually tempered as they dissolve into a sparsity, only to be interrupted by some strong melodic lines. This doesn’t last and the longing feeling returns, interspersed with some atonal violins. A slow tempo leads to a subtle mood, as the cello supports violins that reach skyward. Another rhythmic passage ensues and the violins express freely, roaming far and wide emotionally. There are some solid interjections, but the violins push on. Now, they are ever so quiet and melancholy; barely audible. Some uncharacteristic harmony is heard and the violins slowly fade in intensity to a conclusion.

I’m not surprised that I didn’t hear any connection with Bach, this is a Contemporary work and a very interesting one, at that. There is not much action, but a lot of musical soundscapes that I found to be particularly attractive. It’s also worth mentioning that String Quartet No. 5 has a very beautiful adagio movement.

There are two CDs containing this music. My review copy is titled Viktor Kalabis : String Quartets Nos. 3 – 6, performed by the Zemlinsky Quartet. There is also another 2-CD set – Viktor Kalabis – Complete String Quartets. My understanding is that this requires an SACD compatible player. Given that I know little about SACD, I shall leave it at that. Suffice it to say, both of these versions are available on Amazon UK. Only the SACD is on Amazon US. There is one quartet, No. 4, that I could find on Spotify, but there are several quartet movements on YouTube.

Listenability: I enjoyed the contrasts on this disc but it is definitely Modern.

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