ZOLTÁN KODÁLY – String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2

Austrian composer Zoltán Kodály [1882-1967] wrote two string quartets. He was a lifelong friend of Bela Bartok and taught him techniques of collecting folk songs. Kodály was initially drawn to Modernism but this interest waned as he developed his composing.

String Quartet No. 1 is very long, quite complex, and is in four movements. It  is an epic work, clocking in at 38 minutes on my review CD. The quartet commences in a sombre mood with a solo violin being accompanied by a sensitive backing. The violins begin to spin out long melodic lines. The piece then moves into a tempo, with the cello leading, over a rhythmic background. Now the first violin takes over, but still leaves room for cello statements. The violin cuts back and moves into a simple, folk-like passage, which is very becoming. The cello and violin continue to dominate the music as they converse through various rhythmic sections. There is a certain Gypsy element to this music, as the violin leads the cello into another rhythmic passage. Mostly, the melodies are modal, with little harmonic development. So far, this piece strikes me as being a not very mature work, but feels like a composer working out his personal style. A harmonic section brings a flurry of violins, before they subside and one violin brings a conclusion with a flourish.

The next movement, marked lento, evokes a wonderful mood. The first violin builds short melodic lines, but there are long answering responses from the ensemble. The cello walks and provides a harmonic underpinning and a connection between sections. Again, this music has a modal feeling, which is quite lamenting. A passage with two violins prominent takes over, but again, the cello walks in a solo fashion to delineate sections. Now a pizzicato violin emerges, in a very static passage. This morphs into a tempo, where the first violin is intense. A slightly energised passage gives way to a pause, leading into another solo lament. The accompaniment returns, with a sensitive trilling of strings. This is a most poignant moment; the trills are just so subtle. A pause leads to a sparse passage which concludes on a sustained violin tone.

The third movement, which is quite short, has a strong pulse and is filled with folk-like melodies. These melodies are developed and the music becomes stronger as it progresses. A key change brings a renewed vigour and heralds a new, very optimistic passage, which sees the movement out.

The finale is rhythmically very interesting. It is a potpourri of different rhythms and textures, mostly quite vigorous. A very folk-like passage ensues, with the violin being followed by the cello. A key change continues the lyrical mood for a time, until it eventually retreats into a mild melancholy. Now a jovial violin introduces another folk-like passage, with a lightness of rhythm. The tempo quickens considerably, with violins flashing in and out of the passage. A duelling violin section follows and the mood is brought back to a melancholia. Several melodies are developed before the music breaks into a rapid tempo again. This feeling is carried through to the completion of the work.

String Quartet No. 2 is substantially shorter and contains two movements.

An ascending motif played by all instruments opens the work. There are two bars in tempo but it soon dissolves and returns to a placid mood. The melodies are cleverly crafted with much overlapping of different instruments. A longing passage ensues and the violins produce long motifs contrasted with shorter, rhythmic bursts. A call and response pattern is introduced and the music becomes a conversation, with the violins following each other melodically. There is a degree of dissonance but the violins push on with their dialogue. Now one violin takes precedence, reaching into the high register, leaving the ensemble to finish on a gentle chord.

The second, and final movement, picks up where the first movement left off. A violin reiterates a strong phrase before developing it over a sparse backdrop. A solo violin now moves skyward again and a brief pause has the same violin conversing with the ensemble. A lamenting section brings in the cello. There are many pauses in this movement. The next music heard is a brief folk-like dancing violin which soon drops back into a longing mood. I can hear a modern sound trying to break through. Instead we have a tempo with a viola and cello ostinato motif; the violins dance freely over this section. The motif continues, and the sound is prancing, with assertive, busy, violin lines. A drone is introduced and the violins spin modal lines over a sensitive accompaniment. The violins have a clarity about them that is quite wonderful. Energy returns to the piece, but as usual, doesn’t last for long. This music is filled with constant variations. Folk-like melodies have their say, and a long solo violin melodic line leads to a slightly frantic conclusion.

There are several versions of CDs containing Quartets 1 and 2 on Amazon US and UK. They can also be found on Spotify and YouTube.

Listenability: Mild Early Modern works.

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