Austrian Early Modern composer Alban Maria Johannes Berg [1885-1935] wrote just one string quartet, and another piece, Lyric Suite for string quartet which I have previous discussed. Berg was a member of the Second Viennese School, together with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. Led by Schoenberg, the trio developed from writing in a tonal style on to atonal and serial music.
The work commences with a descending phrase from the first violin, immediately accompanied by some probing motifs. Now other instruments take up the first phrase and a thoughtful mood ensues. Building in intensity the four instruments engage in a brief free for all. This mood doesn’t last and another thoughtful passage is heard. The tonality is quite ambivalent, as the instruments form a mass of different musical ideas – quite delightful really. The music ebbs and flows with rarely any reference to earlier material. Another, tempestuous section is quite striking. I must say, everything heard so far is rather abstract, and I can’t discern a lot of structure. A particularly frantic section is filled with soft musical phrases and oblique interjections from the ensemble. This leads to a period of stasis with wandering melodic lines and no harmony apparent. The end is rather perfunctory.
The second movement again features a descending violin line, this time played a lot more aggressively and we are soon back into more chaos. The music moves forward with instruments criss-crossing. A relief comes with a sound similar to elements of the first movement, with instruments communicating in a most atonal manner. Sweeping phrases are gentle but move into a period of sustained violin tones and scurrying ensemble sounds. This music is very foreign to me as there is nothing to hang onto. Every passage is different, mostly with a high level of abstraction. In many ways it is unintelligible, while still being listenable and musical. A cello line comes to the fore, only to recede into the soundscape. Quivering of bows leads to a striking moment, with cello interjections leading to a sharp conclusion.
So I ask myself, how does one sum up this piece? It has none of the elements of melody, harmony and rhythm that make up most music, and is more a succession of musical ideas but without the above elements. If your interest is piqued, I recommend that you have a listen. It doesn’t seem to match what I am used to discussing.
My review copy was by the La Salle Quartet, but there are many versions available on Amazon.
Listenability: Difficult for some.