CHARLES KOECHLIN – Something Special

French Early Modern composer Charles-Louis-Eugène Koechlin [1867–1950] wrote three string quartets. All are currently available on recordings. I am going to discuss the First which was written from 1911-1913. It is worth mentioning that Koechlin’s quartets are all made up of small passages, sometimes delineated by a pause, other times by cutting back to one instrument for a time. I’ve not encountered this before.

The work opens with a superb, joyful passage filled with lyrical violins, and a very clear, open, shimmering feeling. An arco cello supports a melodic duet from the violins. This shimmering nature permeates all of the composer’s quartets, giving them great character and making them particularly fine. A solo cello passage leads into a new section where the violins are again wonderful, this time expressing in a gentle manner. I do hear a hint from an earlier phrase, but it dissipates before I can process it. The texture increases a little and the violins soar – a harmonic change seems to spur them on and they again form a duet. Now another duet unfolds and the melodies drift between the two violins before the cello is again heard and the music become almost frantic. Slowly this diminishes and that repeated phrase is heard once more, leading to a faded conclusion.

The second movement is marked scherzo and brisk pizzicato strokes make for a lilting rhythm. The again, lyrical violins, dance freely upon this rhythm. The passage is repeated until a new character emerges. There are now pizzicato cello and viola incursions as the melody returns. The sound of the cello is warm as it too, expresses the melodic line until the previous pizzicato section is repeated. This use of pizzicato brings to mind Maurice Ravel’s only string quartet. The music pauses, then regathers with variations on the opening melody. A slowing of the tempo introduces a shimmering sound of strings trilling and a lone violin reaches very high, producing a short phase of harmonics, which are barely audible. This has to be the shortest section in the work – it runs for just under 20 seconds, followed by a pause, which seems almost as long. A new melody is now presented and the ensemble again work themselves into a frenzy, quickly followed by a pizzicato stroke, and a faded violin to end.

The next movement has two violins playing lamentingly with long tones, together with occasional cello bowings. This passage is a wonderful soundscape. Now the violins produce ascending lines that plead to be heard. They pause and then return at a slow tempo, wrapping themselves around each other – it’s almost an embrace and very precious. There is an interminable fade out, making this the longest passage heard so far.

The final movement has a solo violin passage with a lot of character. It moves into a trill and a new section unfolds. Sprightly violins lead the ensemble, before another duet comes and goes. An insistent ensemble motif follows, allowing the violins to read between the lines for a charming effect. Now the tempo and intensity rise, again becoming a little frantic before drifting into a duet over a sustained bowed cello. A gentle episode of harmony fades to conclude.

I’m not sure if I have been able to communicate this composer’s fundamental concept. If you listen to the piece, you will hear the constancy of new ideas – I don’t believe I have heard such a technique before. I should also like to make mention of the Second Quartet, from 1915 which opens with a stunning 10-minute long adagio movement. I often refer to abstract soundscapes, this one is non-abstract. The constant development of slow melodic lines is absolutely wonderful – it sounds like it could have been written in 2015, such are its merits.

These two works are on the review CD, Koechlin: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2 by the Ardeo String Quartet, on the Ar Re-Se label. The Third Quartet is on another CD, paired with a piano quintet. These discs are available on Amazon US and UK.

Both CDs are on Spotify and all three quartets can be found on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Timeless, stunningly beautiful works.


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