HANS ABRAHAMSEN – New Simplicity

Danish Contemporary composer Hans Abrahamsen [born 1952] has written at least four string quartets. The term New Simplicity is mentioned on the Wikipedia page for the composer here. I realise now that I have discussed much music in the past that could be classed as such. It appears to be a term for a reaction against the advances, and sometimes excesses of Modernism.

I will be discussing String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3.

The Second Quartet, written in 1981, is in four movements. It opens with a sense of Minimalism, with brief episodes of an ostinato alternating with periods of short violin statements. This is soon discarded however, and the violins assume control in a slightly microtonal phase. Now a pensive violin is heard, quite confronting, as the second violin and viola construct a dissonant wall of sound. The violins segue into a soft, propulsive section with a rhythmic motif before a solo violin makes a statement featuring string sound effects which take us to the end.

The next movement, which is quite short, is dominated by chordal sounds. It commences with sharp, spiky chords, with no constant rhythm. Slowly harmonised lines appear within the chords, making for a melodic effect. A return to the opening, at a lower volume leads into a totally abstract, random passage of violins before fading on a gentle chord.

The third movement opens with flute-like sounds, I really don’t know how this is achieved, but it does emanate from violins. The mood is wispy, slowly developing into a sparse violin duet – wonderfully quiet abstract melodies are heard. Now a sustained chord interrupts the mood, which soon returns, this time a little more assertive but still very gentle. Passive violins hold sustained tones into a soft conclusion.

The final movement begins with an atonal flourish, leading into a dissonant passage which begins aggressively but soon turns into a mood similar to the previous movement. A marvellous soundscape unfolds as the intensity is reduced and chordal backing underpins atonal violin musings. This effect is sustained for some minutes and is beautiful in its abstraction. A violin line slowly comes to the surface, before a sustained chord gives way to propulsion. The final passage is one of rapidly increasing dynamics and tension as the work concludes on a chaotic crescendo moving into some final sharp chords. This is a fascinating movement, one that I have found very difficult to describe. Overall – a wonderful work.

The Third Quartet, also in four movements was composed in 2008, making it one of the more contemporary works that I have encountered. The first movement is extremely brief and is not of its time. The sound is almost like gentle Baroque flutes that express a short melody before fading out.

The next movement commences with a sustained chord, with no melodic development for some time. Eventually the violins begin to evince long tones – this is another fascinating soundscape. Now the violins construct a rhythmic pattern which doesn’t last as a return to the sparsity ensues. The rhythmic pattern resumes, again not for long as the violins become more expressive. The music pauses, then continues with this magical mood to a conclusion.

The third movement is also very short and again not of its time. It starts with a very major scale sounding, ascending violin phrase, before being joined by the second violin, which offers up supporting harmonies. Again, the sound is flute-like and the music is allowed to briefly exist before a fadeout.

The final movement opens with a sustained, mildly dissonant chordal mood – there is very little musical movement here. Occasional pauses show indications of a background sound effect which I cannot recognise or define. The piece continues with a feeling of stasis until the conclusion.

Just a note on the composer’s other quartets. The first, titled 10 Preludes from 1973 is a collection of ten short pieces, in many contrasting styles. I have seen this recorded as a one-movement work. The fourth, although on the surface appears to be a more challenging work, is really a continuation of the style of those previously discussed. One, relatively long movement (for Abrahamsen) consists of a solo cello, with occasional interjections, for its entirety.

The review CD is titled String Quartets Nos.1-4, performed by the Arditti String Quartet. For me, it is one of their most approachable efforts, I usually find them quite confronting. The disc is available on Amazon US and UK.

It can also be found on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Fascinating Contemporary works, filled with contrast.


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