ALEXANDRE TANSMAN – String Quartets Nos. 2 and 8

Alexandre Tasman [1897-1986] was a Polish composer who wrote eight string quartets. I am going to discuss two of them, an early and a late work.

Firstly, No. 2, which was composed in 1925 and is in four movements.

The work opens with a light, slightly atonal melody carried by the two violins. The atmosphere is of a swirling nature as the viola and cello weave in and out. A rise in the intensity leads to some rhythmic motifs being developed, with a wonderful measured feeling. There is a slight pause and a recapitulation of the first melody. Then the cello and violin set up an ostinato before the passage becomes very focussed and brings on the conclusion.

The second movement, marked lento, is a slow fugue which develops with some sparsity. Again it is mildly atonal, and haunting, in its own way. It creates a most alluring soundscape. There is a slight rise in intensity before it moves into a tempo. This gives way to the two violins and then they just fade away.

The third, very short movement starts with a singing melody over a pizzicato section. The violins are energised and they propel the music forward. After a few brief rhythmic flourishes, it’s all over.

The last movement is very strong with cello and viola providing a dynamic opening. A melody is developed with some vigour. The violins constantly repeat a note as the cello pushes hard. The melodies return and the violins repeat a motif which would not be out of place in the 1970’s Minimalism of Phillip Glass. A strange, stark passage concludes the work.

Quartet No. 8, written in 1956, is also in four movements.

It opens with a torrid mood, the cello being prominent. There are many rhythmic flourishes and a certain amount of chaos. There is also a sense of ferocious intensity. The violins are like rapiers as they slice through each other’s melodies. A very propulsive figure ensues before the violins revive their duel. This goes on for some time and is occasionally punctuated by some cello and viola interjections. The movement ends as it began, in a very vigorous manner.

The next movement opens slowly, eerily even. It is also slightly Romantic but with a serious tone. The melody is just oh, so sparse. There is a hint of atonality as the two violins move forward on their own. Now the mood opens up with all players involved. Sometimes the violins sound like Hollywood. They finally fade to a conclusion.

The third movement is centred on a cello figure that dominates the music until the violins take flight. It’s all very noisy as the piece develops several crescendos. The violins screech at each other and chaos emerges. The music cuts back to the cello to take it out.

The final movement is marked adagio and is very sparse. It’s hard to imagine the same composer wrote the previous movement. After a time the violins become a little agitated but soon return to the somber feeling. There is some melodic development but the music is barely moving, just extremely understated. A fugue is introduced, which is fascinating at this very slow tempo. A sudden violin entrance brings with it another fugue, this time at a fairly moderate tempo, just fast enough to make it chaotic. The music positively dashes to the end.

It’s a long time from 1925 to 1956. The Second is a very light work while the Eighth, quite intense. This development is common among some twentieth century composers. You can experience their progression through their quartets.

These works come on a 2-CD set, Complete Music for String Quartet on the Etcetera label, played by the Silesian Quartet. It is available at Amazon US on CD and at Amazon UK as an MP3 download only.

This CD is on Spotify and both quartets, together with some of Tansman’s others, can be heard on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: A very interesting journey.


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