CATHARINUS ELLING – The String Quartets

Norwegian Romantic composer Catharinus Elling [1858–1942] wrote two string quartets. They are not numbered but are referred to as the D Major, from 1897 and the A Minor, from 1903. Quoting WikipediaElling is principally known for his extensive work on collecting and recording Norwegian folk music – this influence can definitely be heard in the quartets.

The D Major Quartet, in four movements, opens in a lively manner with obvious folk-like melodies. These are beautifully crafted and evoke a most optimistic mood. After a time, they seem to become slightly withdrawn before returning to the opening character. A sense of peace comes over the work but this again leads to a frenetic violin passage. There is a brief respite from the insistent tempo, but the joyful utterances are soon resumed. Sweeping violin phrases lead to a dramatic section which ends on a strong chord.

The next, andante movement is in a minor key and the feeling is one of expressive violins over a strong harmonic background. A pause brings about a stately mood, with powerful harmonised melodic lines – this is a moment of great beauty and wonder. To me, it evokes the best of Dvorak, with the folk idiom again being used as a musical basis, particularly in this slow movement. Nearing the end, the music subsides into rich, long, sustained chords.

A brief allegretto movement follows and this time, the composer looks back to the Classical era, with the courtly, measured feeling of a Mozart or Haydn. A pause leads to a jumpy tempo, and slightly frantic violin lines before a return to the opening mood, which is this time accompanied by the sound of pizzicato. I have to say that this melody reminds me of the main theme from Jesus Christ, Superstar – both melodically and rhythmically, which of course came over one hundred years later. It is certainly not unusual to find classical themes appearing in popular music.

The final movement is again stately, this time with a tempo marking of lento. There is nothing folk-like to be found here but it does produce a gorgeous opening melody. A pause leads to a lift in tempo and dynamics and a recurrent theme is continuously harmonised with an increased intensity. This section reveals the composer to be an exceptional melodist of great imagination – the music is bursting with interesting melodic ideas. As the movement progresses, the rhythmic impetus is stunning and leads to a powerful flourish to conclude.

The later, A Minor Quartet, in three movements is substantially shorter than its precursor and opens cautiously with the minor key evident. A leading violin expresses several fine melodies, closely related to the minor tonality. There is even an air of gypsy music at times until a return to traditional harmonies brings another hint of folk music inspiration which continues to a hectic ending.

The next movement, marked andante, is the longest of the work. A rich harmonic carpet introduces a simple, plaintive melody which gradually becomes a little torrid. The simplicity is resumed and the ensemble trade attractive melodic lines with an ostinato viola passage in the background. Now the torrid feeling reappears for a short section before the opening is revisited. Again, overlapping melodic lines evoke a feeling of simplicity and beauty. The cello offers fine support with resonant harmonies and the violins continue their storytelling. The ending is almost transparent as a shrill violin and sombre chord are heard.

The final movement shifts into a major tonality and a folk-like passage is developed. A change in harmony brings about a new section with the violins in a close dialogue. Questions are asked and responses are presented and, as the intensity rises, free-flowing melodies abound, together with further evidence of a dialogue. The end comes as a surprise with a scattered handful of notes. This has been a brief movement.

The review CD, titled Catharinus Elling: Quartets is performed by the Engegård Quartet. The disc contains both quartets together with a dramatic, substantial piano quartet and is available on Amazon US and UK.

This disc is on Spotify and YouTube while both string quartets can be heard on earsense.

Listenability: Belies the Romantic label, creating works of melodic and rhythmic delight.


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