Australian Contemporary composer Carl Vine [born 1954] has written six string quartets. The first five, from 1979 to 2007 are all contained on the review CD. Four of these works are in one movement with the First being the exception. The Sixth Quartet, titled Child’s Play was composed in 2017. There are probably more coming.
Muffled, organ-like, sparse solo violin sounds introduce the Fifth Quartet. As further instruments enter, some with harmonised lines, the organ effect is even more pronounced. The music now breaks into a period of measured chaos with flurries of violin lines underpinned by striking cello phrases and pizzicato viola. The intensity increases rather quickly, almost to the point of anguish, before a sequence of strong, descending chords is heard, rather like a heavy metal version of a section of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, before a return to the more measured feeling. This time the fluttering violin lines are accompanied by an arco cello, using double-stops to create chords until it reverts to murmuring melodic lines. Now a tempo is established and again the strong descending chord section is repeated – I hope Vivaldi is getting royalties from this frantic passage. A solid chord leads to a pause in proceedings and a solo violin muses in a slightly dissonant manner. In a complete contrast the ensemble now embarks on a sumptuous section with alluring harmonised melodies which would not be out of place in a Romantic work, save for a hint of dissonance. Vine then deconstructs this passage, adding more conflict through dissonance – I hesitate to call it self-mocking as it soon returns to the Romantic nature.
The music has become lamenting, with the violins expressing sparse, long melodic lines, in a rubato manner. The emergence of the cello brings about a call and response nature. A further change has a sprightly pizzicato backing, with the violin introducing further Romantic melodies until a strange rhythmic pattern leads to a virtuosic violin line, negotiating simple harmonic changes – this is not music of its time. The rhythm is now doubled, but the solo violin persists and puts the virtuosity aside, leading to a wonderful set of unfolding melodies.
A pause leads to a new pizzicato-backed section. A wonderful cello line in a high register creates another alluring passage – unfortunately it doesn’t last as the music unexpectedly turns frantic. Dissonant violin lines surge forward and move through a variety of textures from the ensemble. A persistent cello rhythm sets the tone, and eventually makes its own melodic contribution, leading to a hectic series of harmonised cello and violin lines. A brief intense section gives way to a complete contrast as the violin again expresses long lines against a sympathetic accompaniment. This time, the violin soars into its highest register with some stunning playing – this is a simply beautiful, sustained passage. Now the second violin works a motif to underpin the first violin, allowing the music to reach great heights reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. This violin becomes ever so shrill before the ensemble create a jaunty rhythmic pattern which is then harmonised by the first violin. It begins to have fun by responding to the rhythmic motif, and adding variations. The dynamics increase and the violin leads the ensemble through some rhythmic histrionics before an abrupt conclusion.
You will have noticed a sense of duality in this work – in essence, the historical with the present, side by side. After sampling the other quartets, I feel that they tend to be more in a modern style, but, as I only scanned them, I can’t be precise about that.
The review CD, Carl Vine: String Quartets is performed by the Goldner String Quartet on the ABC Classics label, distributed worldwide by Universal Music. It is only on MP3 download at Amazon US and UK, but is available at Presto Classical, and probably elsewhere.
Listenability: Surprisingly contrasting work, with many wonderful moments.