Austrian Early Modern composer Gottfried von Einem [1918–1996] wrote five string quartets. To me, he looks back, rather than forward in his music. Having said that, the degree of contrast in his First Quartet is staggering. The first movement is extremely angular and aggressive, while the last has a lilting Classical charm that could have been written in Vienna in the late 1700s.
The Second Quartet, from 1977 and in three movements is a mostly conservative work. The quiet moments are outstanding. The piece opens with a Romantic lyricism with slightly modern melodies, harmonised to great effect. As the violins break free there is a tension with a rise in pitch adding to this. A chaotic passage has the violins duelling, sometimes sweetly, at other times, with great strength. Now the texture becomes sparse, with the cello assuming an equal voice. A calm passage has a beautiful harmonised melody, however all the while, this mood has rapid changes – it won’t settle. The composer moves the music forward with constant thrusts. Nearing the end, the feeling is maintained for a time, before concluding in a slightly perfunctory manner.
The next movement, marked adagio, begins in a noble style with wonderfully flowing melodies. There is great beauty in the harmonies here. A rubato solo violin passage is achingly expressed, before the ensemble returns to add a slightly melancholy support. This is one instance of the composer looking back as another solo violin passage unfolds, with more vigour. The piece returns to its former peaceful state with a strongly Romantic feeling. Layer upon layer of poignant harmonies slowly build into a more stately passage – the writing for the violins here is superb. A long, sonorous cello tone ends.
The final movement, marked allegro, starts out that way with a flurry of violin activity. The mood tightens a little and another stately period ensues, with wonderful harmonies. Now the music positively races, with a busy pizzicato cello role supporting frantic violin activity. This gives way to cascading violin lines and plenty of flourishes. A change to a more rhythmic section again reveals the composer’s propensity to never stand still. The violins return to lyrical for a moment but the energy returns with a pleasant feeling of chaos. Strong, sustained violin tones anchor the movement and the energy drains as it moves to a shrill violin conclusion.
This is not music of its time, but it has a certain attraction, mainly from the finely crafted violin melodies.
The five quartets are available on two CDs, performed by the Artis Quartet on the Orfeo label, on Amazon US and UK, sometimes only as downloads. The review disc contains quartets Nos. 2 and 4.
Listenability: An Early Modern composer spanning centuries.