ERNST KRENEK – String Quartet No. 4

Ernst Krenek  [1900-1991] was an Austrian, later American, composer of Czech origin (Thanks, Wiki). He wrote eight string quartets. The fourth quartet, written over a period in the mid-1920s, was a transitional one in his output. It was the last quartet composed before he completely changed to a serial-based approach. It contains seven movements and is therefore a longish piece, but some of the movements are very short.

The work opens with a catchy solo cello motif that could have been written in the 1980s on a synthesiser; such a wonderful tone and first impression. A spacious melody emerges out of the motif. A slight change of mood briefly reintroduces the cello motif, and then a significantly different melody. There are chunks of harmony, very powerfully put as the cello motif returns for a third, and then a fourth time. A solo violin interrupts the flow and after a time, all players join in with a strong ending. This is a crackerjack movement.

The second movement, which is quite short, opens quietly with harmonious violins; slightly dissonant but sublime. Eventually the other instruments have their say and build to a slight crescendo ending on a dissonant chord.

The third movement is even shorter, just two minutes. The violins open again, playfully engaging with each other. It is nearly the end by the time the cello can be heard. The melodies become more dramatic and it ends on a quiet solo violin phrase.

The fourth movement is by far the longest and is marked adagio. It opens with a mood of such sweet serenity. The violins share melodic duties with the cello. This occasionally develops into a tempo, interspersed with sombre moments. There is little or no pulse in this music, it must be inferred. Finally a new sense of purpose is felt as the ensemble work as one into a powerful, but still slow, introspective mood. The dynamic drops back and we are in a wonderful soundscape. The music briefly pauses and the violins lament, first two, then back to one. A solo violin line concludes the movement. It leaves me with a feeling of ‘Where have I been the last ten minutes?‘ It’s just so moving.

The next movement is again very short and takes off at a gallop. The cello pulses and the violins dance. Suddenly the violins are solo again and establish a new structure. The cello returns and we have a motif similar to the opening movement. The violins spar before they are joined by the cello and musical games are played to a conclusion. For two and a half minutes, this is an alluring mood.

Movement six is shorter still. A solo violin sets the mood with little accompaniment. The viola has a say in the melody but this music is not going anywhere. It is very quiet and drops to a whisper as a violin plays a sustained long tone to finish.

The final movement begins in a very rhythmic fashion. There are some allusions to Spain here as a result of Krenek hearing some Spanish records at the time. This is joyful music, replete with strong rhythms and melodies to go with it. It is not complicated, it just rollicks along. There is a change in mood as the violin leads the ensemble into a more gentle space. The Spanish tinge remains but the mood is sparse. Two violins bounce ideas off each other until we are left with one violin to conclude. What a strange ending to a marvellous string quartet.

I shall be discussing Krenek again subject to availability. His work is starting to become harder to find. I have this piece as part of a complete 4-CD set by the Sonare-Quartett. This is still available but fairly expensive. At time of writing, SQ No. 4 is available, paired with No. 6, at Amazon UK.

Three of Krenek’s string quartet CDs are on Spotify and many more can be heard on YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: I hadn’t listened to this in quite a while and it was a lot more conservative than I expected. Great music.


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