CARLOS CHAVEZ – String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3

Mexican composer Carlos Chavez [1899-1978] wrote three string quartets. I am going to discuss quartets Nos. 1 and 3.

The first quartet consists of four, relatively short movements. It opens with strong rhythmic possibilities, which seems to be a feature of the composer’s work. Finely crafted melodies reach out to catch your attention. I hear a fleeting hint of Spanish influence here. A much more measured section features much quivering bows, bringing a tension to the surface. Now a calmer section gradually builds as the violins spin out sustained melodies. A solo cello phrase leads us into pastoral territory, where the movement ends.

An adagio movement follows, and its ever so quiet mood is slightly abstract. The cello dominates with long melodic lines and has a powerful presence. When the violins return, it is with a sense of desolation and longing. There is some wonderful writing here; it’s a fine adagio. The cello sustains long tones as the whispering violins fade out.

The third, short movement is energetic as it stays close to the sound of long-forgotten popular music. This is a very bustling movement, and the violins work overtime. Cello thrusts lead to a pizzicato section and simple melodies bring this extremely brief movement to its conclusion.

The final movement is a slow, short lament. It’s all about the melancholy here. Various sustained tones mix with longing melodies. It clocks in at 2:22.

On to the third quartet. In three movements, it features a joyous opening, with delightful melodies. After a time, the intensity drops a little and the music takes on a different hue. It is still insistent however, and a strong rhythmic melody is supported by forceful ensemble playing. A violin asserts itself with a persistent note, before the mood changes into a lonely section, where two violins and the cello make fine statements. The melodic intensity returns and the movement finishes on a chord. This music also seems to have a folk-like feeling.

The next movement is marked lento, and is very fine. A solo violin introduces proceedings but is soon supported by a poignant harmonic background. The violins develop wonderfully sweet melodies and the mood is attractive and very emotional. This is a very thoughtful piece. Interweaving violins produce a most charming sound. It seems to be of an early twentieth century nature, as it meanders to a finish.

The final movement opens with a sense of fanfare, and the violins engage in a spirited dialogue. A fine rhythmic section allows the violins to jab at the music. A change incorporates a stronger ensemble, particularly the cello. Now the violins go it alone, with the cello making intermittent statements. This is again joyous. I’m not familiar with Mexican folk music but the piece seems to have folk-like elements. The sound is now more fractured and each instrument has a role to play within an almost chaotic soundscape. As we near the end, the violins regain control and develop fast-moving melodies. It really is relentless, but in a conservative manner, nothing dissonant here. The conclusion comes with a brilliant fanfare.

I can’t help but feeling an influence of Dvorak on Chavez’s work. I know I say that a lot but this mostly rhythmic music just seems to have several of Dvorak’s traits, if only at times.

This CD, titled String Quartets 1-3 is performed by Cuarteto Latinoamericano on the Urtext label. Unfortunately it’s only available as a download on Amazon and Presto, however it can still be obtained from Naxos Direct. The three quartets are all on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Very positive and easy on the ear, together with some wonderful slow movements.


2 thoughts on “CARLOS CHAVEZ – String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3”

  1. Thanks, Steve. I don’t know where the ‘Brazilian’ came from. So much for the ‘Brazilian folk-music’! My copy of ‘The Twentieth Century String Quartet (bad read, but great resource) says Mexican.

    Didn’t know about the bass either! Too much writing and not enough listening.


  2. Sorry to get to this one so late. I’ve always liked Chávez, but more for his chamber work than for his symphonies. He was always tasteful and added characteristic touches in rhythm and melody to otherwise conventional works. I had never heard his string quartets before! How fascinating that even though they were composed decades apart, they’re very consistent in character. I like the 2nd, even though it’s scored for violin, viola, cello, and double bass.

    Incidentally, Chávez was Mexican.

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