ERICH KORNGOLD – The First Quartet

Austrian-American composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold [1897–1957] wrote three string quartets.

His first quartet, from 1923 features chromatic, contrasted with harmonic writing to quite an effect. There is a little sound of Schoenberg here, but it doesn’t overpower the lyricism that is contained within the piece. It is in four movements.

The work opens with some harmonically ambivalent violin thrusts before moving into a purer sound. A slow melody takes over and the writing is quite beautiful, particularly the cello accompaniment. Now the cello takes an equal part with a violin in a most moving section before a prominent cello sets up a new mood and the second violin features a caustic tone in its musings. A sparse passage has the first violin crafting a melancholic melody with gentle accompaniment. This section briefly borders on the atonal leading to a recapitulation of the opening thrusts. It concludes with some forceful chords.

The next movement commences as an adagio with splendid overlapping violin lines leading to a lamenting feeling. Slowly it drifts through a sparse passage and a soft melody unfolds, with the second violin in support. The cello re-enters and the dynamics rise with this entry. There is a degree of tension here. A return to the sparsity is profound as two violins create a lyrical mood with long sustained tones. These are subjected to a gentle harmonic background, which gradually increases in intensity featuring a rich, resonant cello part. Nearing the end the dynamics are reduced and a fade takes the movement out.

The third movement has a pizzicato support to a skipping violin line which is quite vague. A dialogue is set up with the violin and the ensemble –rather folk-like. Further pizzicato mutterings evoke the opening and a rhythm is established briefly. Some sprightly writing leads to a resolution.

The finale commences with some gently sweeping lines in a call and response manner as the cello plays off the violin melodies. Moving into pizzicato the cello points the way to a spirited section which breaks into a rhythm. A new section has the violin asking questions of a willing ensemble. This again is folk-like. A brief pause leads to a cello flourish with some very pleasant writing for the violins. Now a new mood is established, very lyrical with the cello anchoring the violins’ duet. This doesn’t last and a new rhythm unfolds with all instruments pushing. A further change has sparse violin phrases with a sustained cello note. Finally we have a return to a rhythmic passage which leads to a concluding chord.

This music is very busy, constantly changing. I like it a lot.

The review CD String Quartets 1-3, performed by the Doric Quartet on the Chandos label is available on Amazon.

There are several quartets on Spotify, earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Lyrical early 20th century works.


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