Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu [1870-1894] wrote one string quartet in his short life. I don’t review many Romantic quartets, but I was feeling melancholy, so I thought I would try this masterpiece. Let me know if you would like to hear more of the Romantic era. It’s worth noting that Romantic quartets are generally quite conservative, so I will discuss it in the language of its time; I don’t expect to use the word ‘abstract’. The quartet contains six movements, and is a bit of an epic, clocking in at 35 minutes.
The work opens with an elegance beyond words as the ensemble mesh as one. A slightly plaintive melody suddenly adds a bit more life, and the cello writing is wonderful here. A pause brings about a change into a violin-driven section, based around a melodic motif. Now the rhythm picks up and the cello still provides outstanding accompaniment. The texture drops back to two violins for a time, with negligible ensemble support. Now all four instruments come into play, but the violins continue to lead the way. A cello-dominant passage is impressive and allows the violins to express themselves freely. The tempo suddenly quickens and the mood intensifies, the harmonised violin lines are very fine. Another pause brings about a change as the violins temper their approach with gentle lines. The end comes with a cello and violin duet that slowly moves into one violin, which dissipates.
The second movement, marked adagio sostenuto (a little faster than adagio), starts with a melody resembling something that I recognise, I just can’t place it. I think it might be a Bach transcription that I’ve heard. In any event, it is very precious, played by just one violin for an extended period. There is a hint of cello and then a transcendent harmonic background becomes apparent as the ensemble give gentle support. It too is very precious. Now a tempo takes over with the violins creating a rhythm, and the cello makes a positive melodic statement. This morphs into a section where the violins soar over the cello, which now creates pizzicato interludes for a time. The texture cuts back to one violin and the cello, such a beautiful sound; the interplay is stunning. A tempo returns and the ensemble regather for a moment. This brings a return of the previously mentioned harmonic background, and a shrill, alluring violin line. A fine melody ensues as the violin goes it alone but for an occasional cello passage. This feeling continues to the conclusion of a fabulous movement.
The next, brief movement has a sparse violin melody, that sets up a stunning melodic statement from the cello; it is very positive and evokes much harmonic movement. The cello establishes a call and response with itself, by alternating between two registers. Nearing the end, it changes texture and slips into a walking pattern and concludes. This movement is basically a cello solo, and very fine it is too.
A solo cello opens the fourth movement and again it works in two registers. Then a violin continues with the same melody, while the cello assumes a pulsing technique. The solo cello returns briefly, and is joined by two violins this time. The violins play a long sustained chord and fade. The solo cello returns one more time, in a very melodic manner, and continues to alternate between two registers. It almost sounds like two cellos. The violins return, but it is in a support role to the cello, which soon continues its solo mood. The violins return and a quiet ending ensues. I can’t believe how much the cello has dominated the work thus far.
The very brief fifth movement begins with a conservative waltz for the two violins. At times they increase the dynamics but soon return to the basic waltz melody. The two violins fade to a conclusion.
The final movement begins with a loud flourish before the cello leads the ensemble into a busy passage. The violins briefly assert themselves; we then have another solo cello section. The violins eventually take up the challenge and produce some strong chords. The cello again leads and the violins join in. The texture now changes as the cello walks, briskly, and is very loud, with the violins in support. This leads to the end of the piece, with a dynamic flourish.
I can’t remember the last time I heard such a prominent cello in a quartet. It certainly adds a lot of interest as the writing for the cello is wonderful. Who said Romantic music can’t be exciting? If you only want to own one Late Romantic string quartet, I highly recommend it! My review copy is by Quatuor Debussy, titled Lekeu Works for String Quartet, and contains two other, not insignificant, beautifully meditative works for quartet.
I have noticed, going through my posts and revisiting this piece, it is incredibly beautiful and I urge you to seek it out. The above-mentioned version is no longer available although I managed to pick up a used copy.
The quartet is available on Amazon UK, with several different versions. It is always paired with at least one other piece. Amazon US and Presto have my review copy, as does Spotify, but you have to search for ‘Lekeu Quatuor’. It’s there, you just need to find it! There are also several versions on YouTube.
Listenability: Simply wonderful, transcendent Late Romantic work.