VLADIMIR SOMMER – String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2

Czech composer Vladimir Sommer [1921-1977] wrote three string quartets. I believe only two have been recorded.

The first is in three movements. The work begins with a slightly pastoral theme, played rubato and featuring delicate violin melodies with wonderful cello contributions. Suddenly the mood changes, still featuring the same melodies, but played with intensity and more attack on the strings. The opening mood returns, now with different melodies. The cello states a new theme and the violins pick up on it. This segues into a lively tempo with the violins scattering notes here and there. Now we are back to one violin over a cello and viola. A second violin subsequently joins in and a mildly chaotic passage ensues; there are some wonderful harmonised melodic cello lines with a persistent rhythm in the background. The music goes very quite for a few measures, then we have a recapulation of the opening melody; this time, it features the cello prominently. It eventually moves into tempo and out again, as the theme is subject to variations of melodic line and volume. It finishes on a solo theme statement.

The second movement is even slower than the first. Languid melodies are the order of the day. The violin is haunting and the second violin responds for a fine, extended passage. The melodic intensity slowly, then quickly, increases, before moving back into the sparse opening, this time with a cello and a rapidly bowed quivering violin. The cello is plucked for a while and then we have one violin, and now two. The tonality changes from major to minor. A solo cello statement is very quiet and the quivering returns. Barely audible violin lines combine to deliver a fine, sparse mood. There is some terrific violin here as it reaches out of its loneliness. Now a solo violin goes quietly into its highest register and we have a conclusion. This is a very fine movement and one that will go into my list of my favourite adagios (and there are many).

The final movement is assertive, with a pizzicato interlude thrown in, before it picks up the tempo again. A key change brings about forceful violin thrusts but it soon returns to a gentler mood. The tempo returns and a violin bows forcefully as another inserts powerful statements. There are variations on this texture, but every time, it reverts to a pulsating feeling; at times it is positively frantic. A sustained violin trill allows the other violin to elaborate on a majestic melody which gradually diminishes until there is nothing left. This, again, is a fine movement to finish a fine quartet.

String Quartet No. 2 is in four movements. From the first few notes you can tell it is going to be more modern than the previous work. It breaks into a faltering rhythm, interspersed with atonal thrusts, eventually finding some peace as the cello comes to the fore and the music dissipates around it. We now have an abstract, atonal passage with intermittent violin themes but no melodic development. The intensity rises and falls at will. A gentle interlude leads to another frantic section where the violins are simply outrageous. The end comes with a repeated flourish and two strong chords.

The next movement begins with a longing solo violin, soon to be joined by a second. There is no tempo, just a soundscape, and the cello adds to this beautifully abstract mix. This is almost stasis with atonal melodic lines rambling across a harmonic canvas. It is reminiscent of an Ornette Coleman piece for string quartet that I have heard. The violins move into their highest register for a while before dropping an octave, but still persisting with their slow, atonal murmurings. The violins just fade away to conclude.

An atonal flourish introduces the third movement and this moves into a syncopated rhythmic ramble as the music explores previously unknown territory. A sparse section features string sound effects and microtones. The violins join forces and spin out atonal lines; shades of Hindemith and his neoclassic colleagues. A brief ensemble atonal passage completes the movement, which is a fine piece of abstract writing.

The final movement features a very low cello introduction, with violins weaving more atonal magic, over and under the cello. There is a pleading quality to this music; it cries out. As it progresses, it becomes quite tender, in an abstract way. The violins slowly lift the intensity and reach into the high register for a time. As it unfolds, I realise that I have never been here before; it’s an almost space-like feeling. There is a sense of a desolate landscape. It eventually leaps into life for a moment, only to repeat a sparse three-note motif from another piece I have reviewed recently; I think it was Schumann’s SQ No. 3. Now the cello speaks as the violins shimmer and the work ends on a sustained cello note. Phew!

The most obvious thing to mention is the contrast between the two pieces; they sound like different composers from differing eras. While the first quartet is gently abstract, the second takes it to a whole new level. It’s absolutely wonderful! I love the way the music flows from one through to the next.

This music comes from a CD titled, not unexpectedly, William Sommer – String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2 performed by the Panochea Quartet; and hats off to them. What a performance. I could only find it on Amazon US as ‘used and new’ and as an MP3 download. What a shame this is happening to the string quartet repertoire … It is however, on Spotify and also on youtube.

Listenability: Beautiful mildly modern abstraction. Highly recommended for those inclined.

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