FRIEDRICH CERHA – String Quartet No. 4

Austrian Contemporary composer Friedrich Cerha [born 1926] has written at least four string quartets. I am going to discuss the one-movement Fourth Quartet and some incidental music from the CD which also contains the Third Quartet.

Long, sustained tones from the violins open the work – there is an air of mystery in this atonal combination – and quite beautiful it is too. The sparsity is interrupted by a loud, frantic passage which is in complete contrast to the opening. It is a dense, complicated soundscape. This eventually gives way to a lamenting section, with the violins being prominent, expressing poignant melodies. Now some tension develops with crisscrossing melodic lines from all instruments. Random, heavy chordal interjections appear in this intense passage. Finally a violin goes solo, very shrill in the high register before returning to earth with another alluring, atonal melody. The ensemble support the feeling and this is a moment of great, abstract beauty. The violins extend this phase before entering in a dialogue – the feeling remains wonderful.

A return to a chaotic passage didn’t surprise me – I could feel it coming. This time the intensity only exists for a short time before a different kind of chaos comes into play. It is much more measured than the earlier assault. Now the music reverts back to a solo violin, and then another – the poignant feeling returns. What a wonderful sound, filled with abstraction. The two violins muse in a most alluring manner, with occasional tones from the cello and viola. The end comes with a sense of peace.

This work obviously contains intense contrast but there is much beautiful music to be found here.

I would like to discuss several of the 8 Movements after Holderlin Fragments, some of which are quite beautiful. Most of them are very short.

The First movement is an enthralling soundscape. Sombre melodic lines drift in and out and the cello gives fine support to the violins. The ending is shrill and ever so quiet.

The Third movement opens with a quivering bowed violin. Sustained tones dominate and the sparsity is wondrous – quite heavenly really and the end evokes a feeling of soft, whispered voices.

The Fourth movement is a murky mood with all instruments scuttling about. One violin keeps up a constant flurry of notes, reminiscent of a bee in flight. The end comes with a flourish.

The Fifth movement is a sustained abstract mood. It is so sparse, some may not call it music. The violins tenderly whisper melodic lines as they maintain the mysterious atmosphere to the conclusion.

The Seventh Movement is more dynamic than those previously mentioned, but it still paints a stark feeling. A violin duet dominates as the sound maintains a sense of peaceful abstraction. This is a marvellous place to be.

The Eighth movement is considerably longer than the others and seems to combine attributes from its predecessors. There are long, peaceful stretches where glissandos predominate and other sections of bows quivering insistently and building tension. Now string sound effects seem to overwhelm the mood for a time. Slowly the sound disintegrates and a peaceful end is heard.

I should mention that all of these short movements feature strong atonality, but still manage to evoke great beauty.

The review CD, titled Cerha: String Quartets Nos. 3 & 4 – 8 Movements after Holderlin Fragments, by the Stadler Quartet is available from Amazon US and UK. There is also a disc– String Quartets 1-3, by the Arditti Quartet which is deleted, but can still be found with a little research. Nos. 1 and 2 are both superb.

The Stadler Quartet disc is on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Contrasting high energy together with wonderful abstract beauty.


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