British composer Benjamin Frankel [1906-1973] wrote five string quartets. I don’t usually praise many reviewed quartets because I don’t find all string quartets to be profound. It’s just a fact of life. But in this case, I shall make an exception. I find Frankel’s work to be wonderful. But that’s just me, and I might change my mind tomorrow. Such is the string quartet experience!
String quartet No. 1, in four movements, commences with a slow, sparse violin duet that takes me straight to where I like to go. This elegiac feeling persists, with occasional increases in dynamics and intensity. The cello is brilliant as it adds touches of colour to this heavenly mood. The violins eventually fade out.
A fanfare introduces the next movement. Strong melodies ring out. After a time, the violins set up a dynamic quivering section which draws strong statements from the cello. The music is tending towards fever pitch as the quivering returns. The ending is almost perfunctory as the two violins play seemingly random pitches.
The third movement is again slow and lamenting, although it is slightly darker than the first movement. Violins explore beautiful, atonal melodies, and the cello makes strong contributions. Suddenly, there is a lift in intensity and the piece becomes more assertive. The violins generate some strong chords, before introducing a new, slow section, which eventually leads to the violins petering out.
The final movement begins slowly, but soon moves into a brisk tempo. Violin thrusts are answered by the cello. The intensity drops slightly, before the violins again break into song. This leads to a bright and breezy end to the piece.
String quartet No. 3 is in five movements, and opens with a hectic passage, where all instruments display a high level of intensity. There are many rhythmic thrusts, all based around a strong motif. The mood moves into a tempo, while retaining the intensity; it’s very powerful. The opening theme returns and the movement concludes on a high.
The next movement, which is very short, contains a grand opening statement before it moves into an exciting, vigorous passage. This is serious music, it positively overwhelms me. The end is a fade on some scattered violin phrases.
The third movement is a brilliant soundscape. A viola trills as the cello inserts single notes; the violins engage in pizzicato and slowly develop the mood. The level of abstraction is high but it is in no way noisy music. The violins sweeten in texture, and a pizzicato sustains a fabulous atmosphere which eventually moves to a faded conclusion.
The fourth movement is marked lento, and it is a beautiful sound canvas that features sensitive violin lines over a slightly dark background. The cello has a strong part to play as it merges with the violins for a very special feeling. This is, again, a magnificent soundscape that really speaks to me. Its ever so gentle sound is sustained until a quiet conclusion.
The finale is very short, just under two minutes. It is reminiscent of the first movement and very dynamic. The energy is propulsive and it ends with a flourish.
I realise that I have written less than I normally do, in describing these quartets. There is just something about this music that sustains my interest, but is also a little indefinable. I can tell you that they are very fine pieces. I loved the preponderance of slow movements in the first quartet.
This 2-CD set, Frankel: Complete String Quartets, on the CPO label, performed by the Nomos Quartet, is available on Amazon US and UK. The full set is on Spotify and several quartets exist on YouTube. Both of the discussed works are on earsense.
Listenability: Magnificent, very personal music.