ELENA RUEHR – String Quartet No. 4

American Contemporary composer Elena Ruehr [born 1963] has written at least six string quartets. Her total musical output is quite varied in style, especially the string quartets. I have chosen a middle-term work for discussion.

The Fourth Quartet opening movement, titled Sonata, begins in a mysterious manner – sporadic violin lines are played with a strong tremelo attack on the notes, making it sound a little electronic. The music soon settles into a pizzicato rhythmic motif, which, when joined by the cello, becomes a full-blown ostinato with various violin melodies expressed. A dramatic moment ensues with percussive, rhythmic chordal interjections. The ostinato continues and a solo cello phrase evokes the opening tremelo effect, this time applied to a chordal passage. Gradually the music develops into a lamenting mood, with stark violin lines, before moving back into the ostinato. Again there is drama with strong melodies in abundance, dissonance prevails. The end comes with a slowly pulsing pizzicato cello.

There is no pause leading into the next movement, Aria, which features a violin using various micro tones and glissandos to express a deep sense of sadness over a droning accompaniment. Melodically, the lines are modal, taking their cues from the drone – this is a wonderfully melancholic passage, slightly ethnic sounding. Eventually the cello enters, with more ostinato, but the violins now combine to emphasise the ethnic nature of the music. A rising intensity further develops the Middle-Eastern mood. Unusually, the music just stops with a few cursory pizzicato cello notes.

The third movement, Minuet, opens gently rhythmically, in a strange time signature. Soon the rhythms become powerful and loud – until they return to the mellow feeling. As the music unfolds, it continually oscillates between the mellow and the powerful, while the harmony also moves regularly, leading to a subsequent change in the melodic material – there is no modality here. As the music rises and falls, the rhythmic flavour persists through the various sections and continues until an abrupt ending.

Finale features an opening flourish, before settling into a dynamic ostinato which serves as a grounding for the violins to craft long melodies. Again the rhythmic intensity comes and goes, sometimes there are quite dramatic thrusts – at other times, pensive melodies are heard. As the music progresses the strong motifs seem to predominate. Occasionally, a moment of morose, harmonised violin lines are heard, but the almost inevitable thrusts return. Nearing the end, an extended melodic passage unfolds, again hinting at an ethnic feeling. The conclusion is a flurry of quivering, sustained violin tones.

This piece seems slightly schizophrenic. The first two movements are very melodic, while the last two have rhythm at their core. The First Quartet is a bit similar – it features three rhapsodic movements while the finale is very assertive and powerful. The Third Quartet is almost medieval and folk-like, being very light and positive.

The above three works are all contained on the review CD, How She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr by the Cypress String Quartet. There is also a 2-CD set, Elena Ruehr: Six String Quartets by the Borromeo Quartet & Cypress Quartet, which I presume has the same versions as the review disc, combined with new recordings.

Both of these CDs are on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: A varied mixture of Contemporary styles.


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