British composer Christopher Wright [born 1954] has written at least four string quartets. In this post, I shall be discussing Nos. 1 and 2.
The first quartet opens very quietly; 40 seconds elapse before you hear any real music. A sombre mood ensues until some dissonant interjections appear; this is heady stuff. A brief pause leads back into the introduction with a harmonised violin melody. Now more ensemble interjections occur. There seems to a pause between each mini-section, as consonant violin melodies become slightly dissonant. Further interjections are followed by a mournful cello melody, before a dancing violin leads into a chaotic moment; this then morphs into a solo cello section. The chaos returns for an extended period until a quiet passage takes over; it’s very peaceful, featuring violin harmonics. Out of this develops some further atonal melodies, followed by another pause. The ending is again a little chaotic, finishing on several abrupt chords.
The second movement is marked adagio and features a haunting solo violin. This is joined by a second violin and brings about a very special moment. The cello enters and the music slowly edges forward. A hint of atonality and a slight rise in intensity enhances this prolonged atmosphere. A pause renews the peaceful mood; the violins are very sparse. The sound is very soft now as a subtle pizzicato interlude leads the movement to completion. This is a fine movement, very delicate.
The final movement goes straight into chaos but soon diminishes in intensity. There are strong, dissonant violin lines here, sometimes with a heavy rhythmic emphasis. Another pause creates a new mood which is a light dancing section. Gradually the dissonance and the intensity rise for another extended period, until a chaotic ending takes place. Quite a noisy movement really.
The second quartet has an opening with tempo, which makes for a change. It doesn’t last for long as a solo violin reaches out over the ensemble with a finely crafted melody, while strings hold a sustained chord in the background. The violin hints at atonality and a burst of energy leads to a chaotic first violin, together with atonal ensemble interjections. As we move towards the end, pizzicato prevails; this lowers the intensity briefly. A slightly aggressive passage concludes this movement.
A slowly walking cello commences the second movement. What a fabulous feeling! Gentle violin notes abound, with some string sound effects in the background; very appealing in an abstract way. There is a harmonic shift to a new key and the cello walking ceases. We are led into an increase in dynamics and a prominent violin melody; strings quiver underneath. Now we have a quiet passage for a time, but all the while there is tension in the air. The mood finally breaks and the violin and cello converse with much vigour. A new section brings pauses and violins adding short, discrete statements that cry out. String sound effects dominate as the end comes with shimmering violins, gently fading.
A strong violin statement introduces the finale. Slight chaos follows as the violins play with much conviction; there are also solo violin passages. When the ensemble enters, there is a lot of musical movement going on, driven by a strong rhythmic impetus. A pause leads to a new mood, with the violins intertwining, swapping and overlapping phrases. Another pause brings a taut section, with much tension in the violins. The ensemble returns with snippets from the opening and an interestingly harmonised violin line completes the work.
I would categorise this music as measured Modern. It has plenty of moments of peace, together with some elements of an avant-garde style. These include great contrast in dynamics, use of silence, atonal melodies, rhythmic complexity, aggressive passages and some just plain noisy sections. I still found it interesting, and somewhat different to what I am accustomed to hearing. I expect I make it sound more radical than it really is. Strangely, quartets Nos. 3 and 4 are more conservative. I intend to discuss these at a later date.
These works can be found on a CD titled Wright: Four String Quartets, on the Nimbus label by the Fejes Quartet. The disc is freely available on Amazon US and UK.
Listenability: Some of the most confronting works I have reviewed. However I still look forward to discussing Nos. 3 and 4.