Czech Classical era composer Anton Reicha [1770–1836] wrote at least six string quartets. Also a dedicated musical theorist, he pushed the boundaries in his compositions. I have come across this quote on several internet sites:
Although little-known today, his works (which include many pieces for piano and for wind instruments) vary between a nimbleness inherited from Classicism and a strong taste for theoretical experimentation verging on the visionary (Quatuor scientifique, Fugues for piano).
The work under discussion was written in 1806, making it the earliest work I have examined in a while. Reicha takes the standard four movement approach of the time, however he prefaces it with an introduction, La Pantomime, and, intersperses fugues throughout the four movements, as well as throwing in some extra fugues in various places. For the sake of brevity I have included only a selection of the fugues.
This extended introduction begins with a warm solo violin meandering through chordal harmonic interjections – the cello is especially delightful here as the chords give way to melodic lines. A sweeping violin excites the ensemble and a conversation with the second violin ensues. Now strong chords return, to the point of sustain, over which the violin gently muses. A very major sounding passage follows, with not a little pomp, before the previous conversation is heard again.
The violin is in control now as it expresses a melodic line that extends for a large number of bars, without a rest in the whole line. Brief pauses start to appear, delineating various sections, most of which are recapitulations of earlier material. Some stately sections are heard and it is all about the violin here. The end lets you down gently.
- Adagio – Allegro – Tempo Primo – Allegro – Tempo Primo
The opening mood is carried over from the introduction and, in this, the nominal first movement of the quartet, the composer presents a patient, inner strength. A change to an allegro tempo is short and the adagio returns. Slowly a pizzicato section develops, with great subtlety – the harmonies are strong but the plucking is delicate. This is followed by a more animated section which is surprisingly brief. A final, thoughtful passage has a violin meandering over ever changing harmonies.
- Fuga – Poco Andante
A solo cello statement leads this fugue at a brisk tempo and a section of some sustained tones together with short notes create a fascinating mood. A new section features the first violin in control as it fashions statements based on the original fugue subject. There is a great sense of forward movement here, with the end coming as a confident harmonised melody.
- Fuga – Thème De W. A. Mozart
This fugue introduces itself with a breakneck tempo. Being one of the shorter movements in the work, it squeezes a lot of music into a small space. A solo violin flurry is heard before a conversation with the ensemble to conclude. I must say that all of the endings thus far seem to be quite perfunctory.
- Allegro Assai
Although not marked as a fugue, this brief movement certainly has the feeling of one. Delayed melodic responses to earlier statements add to the atmosphere. The music is dominated by a stately, melodic character.
This movement opens with an expressive violin set against rhythmic interjections. The violin continues to lead for some time, with various forms of accompaniment presented. A return to the opening style has the violin even more expressive this time. Nearing the end, a significant change to the harmony is very forward looking, and very beautiful.
- Fuga – Thème De J. Haydn
The last of the fugues has a solo violin leading into a marvellous, but brief musical journey. This music is very emotional to me, quite moving. Individual voices wander freely through a collage of lamenting sounds. A marvellous piece of music.
- Finale. Mésure Composée
The final movement is also the longest, except for the introductory theme. It has a brisk, orchestral feel to it, together with an air of optimism. Constantly changing instrumentation supports a lot of forward motion. Another breathless, extended violin phrase moves through several accompaniment styles. A terrific flourish from one of the violins is magical, before the tempo accelerates, leading to a hectic passage and a conclusion.
I’m feeling that you don’t get the normal sounds of the Classical era very much in this work. For example, Reicha was known to use several unusual techniques. To me it seems that the divertimento approach is used extensively throughout this work. You can read what I have previously said about divertimenti and Haydn here. There are many examples of a solo violin being accompanied by three instruments with the same rhythmic lines, the only changes being different notes to continually outline the current harmony. On the other hand, he did have a forward-looking approach which shows in the inherent structure of the piece.
As the review CD, REICHA – Quatuor Scientifique performed by the Reicha Quartet on the Brilliant Classics Label is pending release, it is neither on earsense nor YouTube. It is however on Spotify which I used for this review and where you can also hear it. It is listed on Amazon US as a pre-order for May 31, 2019 and Amazon UK for June 28, 2019.
Listenability: Fascinating work that looks back in time, and also imagines what the future might look like.