EDVARD GRIEG – String Quartet No. 1 in G minor

Norwegian composer Edvard Hagerup Grieg [1843-1907] wrote two string quartets, with the second remaining unfinished. His first quartet in G minor, is of epic proportions, and was written during 1877-1878. It contains four movements.

The work commences with a minor key fanfare, before leading into a rhythmically charged passage which passes through harmonic changes and several dark passages. A pause leads to a totally contrasting, lyrical section, which morphs into another brisk tempo, this time in a major tonality, with playful violin lines. Small crescendos are built, and the melodies are folk-like. A powerful chordal sequence returns the music into a minor tonality, with more melodic development. Again, lyrical melodies abound. Another rhythmically powerful chordal passage leads into a subdued moment. It’s almost a murmur. Now the tempo returns and a strong melody drives the music forward. Some descending violin phrases leads into another chordal passage. A false ending brings a new, subdued melodic section, interspersed with occasional rhythmic interjections. The violin leaps into a high register, then descends into its lowest. This is followed by a thoughtful passage, which morphs into a beautiful chordal section; almost funereal. It is particularly subtle, and out of it rises a most alluring melody. A quiet section of shimmering violins concludes the movement, which has been quite a journey.

The second movement opens with a longing mood, but not too dark. A melody rises up and grows in stature as time passes. Now we have a tempo, and the sound becomes almost gypsy-like with stirring violin phrases. The tempo recedes and the violins converse in an elegant manner. A new tempo ensues and the ensemble build a most lyrical mood. The tone of the first violin is wonderful. Brief frantic passages interject but they don’t last; the lyrical feeling remains until the end of this terrific, melodic movement.

The next movement begins in a very rhythmic and dramatic manner. This alternates with more quite, melodic sections. The violins take it upon themselves to express in an alluring passage before the drama returns. Now we have movement, and melodic development. A brief pause leads into a simple folk-like section, where the violins display wonderful lyricism. Brief dramatic interjections don’t halt the persistent melodic mood. A stirring melodic line leads to a flourish to conclude.

The final movement starts in the minor tonality and the opening is very sparse. A rhythmic passage develops, with stirring violin lines. A new tempo, almost dance-like, also produces fine melodies. There is a brief, but powerful minor passage, which leads into further fine melodies at tempo. An optimistic tone emerges and exciting melodies dominate proceedings. A fascinating descending violin line is a feature of the movement; it keeps popping up everywhere. The optimism continues, and, as we near the end, there are many pulsing interjections sparring with the melodies. A minor chord concludes the movement.

This quartet is very melodic, which is a feature of Grieg’s style. The first classical record I ever purchased was his Peer Gynt Suites 1 & 2, and I can still remember the contrasting longing, and optimistic melodies.

Many versions of this quartet are available. I fancy Grieg – String Quartets, on the Hyperion label, performed by the Chilingirian String Quartet. Spotify features three versions and several are on YouTube. There is also a wonderful performance by the Guarneri Quartet on earsense.

Listenability: A fine, Late Romantic work from a melodic master.


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