BERNARD van DIEREN – The Last Quartet

Dutch Early Modern composer Bernard Hélène Joseph van Dieren [1887–1936] wrote six string quartets. These are under-recorded, but four of them are available on the internet, mostly from live performances. More on that later.

Van Dieren’s Sixth Quartet, written in 1928, and in three movements, is a beautifully expressive work. A fascinating blend of the Late Romantic with the Early Modern, it features some discordant melodies tending towards the mildly atonal, together with some lush writing for the strings.

The opening movement, marked energico (with energy or in a vigorous and energetic manner – thanks, Wiki), drops straight into a sense of wonderful abstraction. Seemingly random melodies waft through a vague atmosphere before leading to some more assertive melodic lines. There doesn’t appear to be any thematic development but the violins are quite lively in their projection. I am drawn to these indeterminate soundscapes, which feature regularly in some 1920s string quartets. After a period of entropy, the violins express melodies of great charm, with some Late Romantic textures.

Now an animated solo violin lifts the mood with some excited phrases, which don’t last and we have a return to the sound of vague melodies giving a sense of the formless – the music just seems to drift aimlessly but all the time retaining the inherent beauty of the movement. Further frantic moments create a positively chaotic passage which is brief, quickly returning to the melodic feeling. The end is a succession of rhythmic thrusts, leading to a final sustained chord.

The next movement, marked cantabile (singable or songlike) opens with a warm, lush sound of strings in a fine harmonised section. This feeling is sustained for some time before the melodies become more expansive, but always pleasing. The viola features a fine, resonant tone here as it accompanies this wonderful, sensitive feeling. Now a mild sense of drama is heard but it doesn’t last, with a return to the de facto measured nature of the movement. Tender melodies wander, seemingly aimlessly but the effect is one of great beauty. So far in this work I haven’t encountered what I would regard as a tempo, it’s as if the main approach is a feeling of rubato. A slow, harmonised section leads to the end.

The final movements is marked furioso and for this composer, it probably is. The melodies are busier than those previously heard, but still retain the composer’s signature expression of indeterminate melodies over a lush accompaniment. A brief moment of drama soon returns to this constant sense of warm melodies with an underlying sense of abstraction. I am beginning to find this music to be of an Early Modern nature, but without a hint of confrontation. The violins briefly move into a skittish, dramatic passage with a sparing use of pizzicato, which has been mostly absent previously. Now a sense of tempo is established with busy violins and assorted striking ascending and descending motifs, and leads to a flourish to conclude.

This is dreamy music – it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, but I like that. Interestingly I found it to be less modern than some of the earlier quartets.

The review CD is a compilation, String Quartets from the Twenties performed by the Utrecht String Quartet, released on the NM Classics label. The disc also features quartets by two relatively obscure composers – Dutch Henriette Bosmans and Russian Alexander Mosolov. The Bosmans is also warm, but has more rhythmic diversity than van Dieren. The Mosolov is definitely more modern, with a harder edge to the work.

This CD is only available as an MP3 download. During a recent search for new quartets I found that there is a rapidly declining number of CDs dedicated to composers who are not in the critic’s ‘Top 50’. As a result I feel I will be reviewing more download only music in the near future. It’s not surprising given the state of the music industry.

The Utrecht CD is on Spotify and several van Dieren quartets can be heard on earsense and YouTube, as can some of the Bosmans and Mosolov.

Listenability: Charming Early Modern work.


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