BORIS BLACHER – String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2

Composer Boris Blacher [1903-1975] was born in a Russian-speaking region of China, to Russian parents. In 1922, he moved to Berlin to study and, eventually teach. His career was interrupted by National Socialism. He was accused of writing degenerate music and lost his teaching post at the Dresden Conservatory (Thanks, Wiki). He wrote five string quartets. I am going to discuss Nos. 1 & 2.

His first quartet was written in 1930 and comprises three movements. The first opens with a skittish musical statement, notes seem to be going everywhere. The mood is then transformed into something more tangible as the violins dance around the accompaniment.  It is essentially a dialogue between all four instruments with random themes presented without being re-presented. However this music just will not settle, until it concludes. The movement sets the tone for the remaining pieces.

The second movement is slow and features an ostinato on the cello while the violins drift above. This will not settle either. The violins wander to and fro until the cello joins them and a calm is reached. There is some abstract interplay within the ensemble and it fades to an end, leaving us none the wiser. Very light but rewarding music.

The final movement opens with a very busy section –  it positively dances. First the cello dominates for a while and then the violins take the lead. There is a small amount of dialogue but it feels like the melodies are almost random. They seem to bear no relationship to each other. Then it just stops.

The second quartet, written in 1940, is in three movements and begins incredibly slowly and quietly. After a time a fanfare brings the movement to life. There is an abundance of energy. There is a sense of entropy within the melodies, there is just no cohesion.

The second movement opens with a quiet cello ostinato, a bit like Ravel’s Bolero. The violin takes centre stage and is very insistent. The cello underpins the movement; what an enthralling sound. The violins seem a lot more focussed, and some admirable slow melodies appear here. There is finally some cohesion.  The ending is quite beautiful.

The third movement is again agitated, with melodies created, but not given time to take root. It is very mannered. There often seems to be no obvious relationship between the instruments.

What to make of all this? The music is uniquely stylised. It moves along without form; the violins are constantly playing different melodies. There are two components. The violins dance above, almost  randomly. The cello and viola provide the basis of the accompaniment. There is very little melodic development in these two quartets.

I must make mention of the larghetto movement of the third quartet. It is a marvellous piece of writing, totally out of character with that which I have just described. The cello anchors the piece with a motif, and, this time the violins seem more focussed. The melodies are stated in half-time, which makes them all the more obvious. No agitation here. A charming theme keeps recurring until it finally peters out.

There is a CD of the complete string quartets, titled Blacher: String Quartets Nos.1-5, on the EDA label, by the Petersen Quartet on Amazon US and UK. It is not available on Spotify but many Blacher quartets can be found on YouTube and all of the works are on earsense.

Listenability: Slightly strange but appealing works.


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