American Contemporary composer Dan Welcher [born 1948] has written at least three string quartets. These three were composed in the period 1987-2008 and reveal a vast contrast in styles. The first is rather confronting, the second is jolly and the third, which I am going to discuss, is quite beguiling.
This work is titled Cassat, after the American artist, Mary Cassat and is in three named movements.
Introduction – The Bacchante (1872)
Trilling, melodious violins open the work, but there is a hint of questioning in the cello part. A rhythmic viola motif occurs sporadically throughout this section, creating a very tender moment which eventually dissipates and is replaced by a passionate period. Now there is a hint of modernity as an agitated passage is heard. This builds in intensity, but apart from being a little harsh, is mostly benign. The intensity gives way to extremely lyrical violins, sometimes bordering on the shrill. A pause introduces a strong viola trill again with lyrical and slightly questioning violin. The tone here is marvellous, so rich. The ensemble regather with an alluring sound which gradually becomes frantic with powerful bow strokes in abundance. The end is a violin flourish and a sustained cello note which resonates for some time.
At the Opera (1878)
An excited section opens this movement, which gradually drifts into an almost inaudible trilling viola. Over this a strangely optimistic, almost medieval sound unfolds with a rhythm played by more than one instrument. A violin takes over and the accompaniment stops, leaving an evocative solo violin statement, which sings out, sounding nothing like that which has come before. A further trilling is heard and the ensemble again hint at the medieval. Merely a hint it is, as the violins again come together in a wonderfully expressive duet, full of character. Cello incursions make the mood somewhat transcendent before a tempo and a new mood is established. Now we have agitated shrill violins which give way to a folksy ¾ time and several subtle changes drift by, all of them peaceful. A richly harmonised section ensues which becomes briefly rhapsodic, then chaotic, before a section of two violins lets you down easy with a sense of evanescence.
Young Woman in Green, Outdoors in the Sun (1909)
Two lamenting violins open this final movement, and their duet lines reach out for something unknown. Sometimes venturing into the shrill, the entry of melodic lines from the cello creates a rich resonant texture until a change in harmony drifts into a slow, quivering tempo which lasts for some time. Now a further hint of the medieval is heard but this time, there is more rhythmic and melodic action than in the previous movement. The music gathers strength with a prominent cello before moving into a further passage of lamenting violins, both featuring a rich tone. When the ensemble joins, the sound becomes almost pastoral, with occasional changes in the mood. A new passage is again rich in tone and harmonies and several changes in tonality are quite charming. The ensemble again finds a new impetus and move into a cello led revival, with a mild flurry of violin activity. An almost inaudible solo violin is joined by a beautifully harmonised chord to conclude.
This is a wonderful work, filled with much that is strikingly beautiful, with the occasional chaotic passage. It is a long way from the First Quartet. I don’t usually talk about performances but the tone of the violins in this piece is awesome – hats off to the Cassat Quartet.
The review CD, Welcher: String Quartets Nos. 1-3, on the Naxos label is available from Amazon US and UK.
Listenability: Surprisingly lush Contemporary work.