WILHELM STENHAMMAR – String Quartet No. 6

Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar [1871-1927] wrote seven string quartets. They are all Late Romantic works, and are very lyrical.

The sixth quartet opens in a typical Swedish mood, with a touch of melancholy. Soon the violins grow in dynamics for a time, before dropping back to almost nothing. A slow ascending phrase brings about some more melancholia, and the violins leads us through a gentle section. The first violin breaks into song and the movement assumes a tempo with overlapping violin phrases; this is splendid writing. Descending violin lines dominate the next section, which then becomes quite busy. The cello rumbles and the violins reach their zenith with strong melodies. The descending lines return and bring about a quiet passage. The violins are especially lyrical here, and there is a great depth of feeling. The violins gently waft over the music and end on a chord.

The next movement, marked allegro, is quiet, but insistent in its brief 2:50 appearance. This is a marvellous piece of musical concision.

The third movement, an adagio, begins as a peaceful wander through various, measured melodies. The violins reach out as the melodies become stronger, and the sound is often chordal, eschewing individual melodic lines. The ensemble moves into a section of gentle, pulsating chords and the violins flow effortlessly over this tapestry of sound. As the movement progresses, the violins rise in dynamics but retain the gentle feeling throughout. A solo violin is especially attractive, and continues intermittently, approaching the end of the movement. This comes with a solo violin, sometimes gently harmonised, and concludes on a sustained note.

The final movement opens with a dramatic flourish, which is then repeated. The music now moves into a chaotic tempo. Strong, rhythmic melodies, slightly orchestral, are fashioned as the violins move forward. Some of the playing is quite frenetic, evoking some unknown memory. A touch of minor harmony brings a slightly serious tone as the violins continue their intensity. This is eventually transformed into a hectic violin passage; very rhythmic. Some lone ensemble chords change the mood completely and a chord brings about a conclusion.

There are several CDs containing String Quartet No. 6 on Amazon US, UK and Presto. The version on CPO, by the Oslo Quartet contains quartets 4-6. There are several discs of Stenhammar quartets on Spotify and the work can be found on YouTube.

Listenability: Conservative but charming. Music of its time.

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