HAROLD SCHIFFMAN – The Second Quartet

American Modern composer Harold Schiffman [born 1927] wrote two string quartets. I have selected No. 2 as it contains two slow movements, a rare pleasure in the genre.

The work, in four movements, begins in a poco adagio tempo, which sounds promising. A probing violin initiates a sombre mood, which is soon interrupted by measured ensemble interjections. Returning to the introductory feeling, the interjections are again in evidence. This music is Modern in conception, with an uncertain tonality as the violins dominate. Now two violins express longing phrases before the ensemble returns to the previous, busy style. It doesn’t quite feel like an adagio, being quite insistent at times. I love these indeterminate tonal landscapes, the lack of certainty is very engaging. A sense of chaos unfolds, but soon returns to two sparse violins and concludes in a mystifying manner.

The next, brief movement, marked molto vivace e preciso (energised, lively with precision), is quite similar to the sound of the previous movement – so much for tempo markings. Rhythmically assertive sections of solo violin, which are sometimes quite lyrical, alternate with atonal musings, the contrast being a little puzzling at times. Essentially this movement is based around one melodic idea, with constant variations being applied.

The third movement is a lento. This time the slow tempo evokes that descriptor. The ensemble offers up a brief section of slow lamentation before one of the violins sweeps into its highest register, producing a magnificent moment. The opening returns and the shrill violin is again heard as it wafts across the serious ensemble – this is some wonderful writing. The shrill violin finally returns to join the ensemble in a marvellous slow section, revealing a peaceful nature which is approaching transcendent. The sparsity is magnificent as the violins reach out with tender, elegiac lines to conclude.

The final, allegro movement, is not far removed emotionally from some of the previous slower movements. The characteristic tonal ambivalence is also again evident as the violins spin out measured, but intriguing melodies. A pause introduces a more aggressive passage, where the violins reach out in an extended dialogue – it’s all about the violins here. There are many pauses in this movement, generally followed by changes in approach. Sometimes dialogues, at other times ensemble harmonies are heard. The end, a short violin duet passage is a little unexpected.

A quick scan of the First Quartet gives me the impression that it is a little more modern than the discussed work. The review CD contains both quartets and a brief Capriccio. To me they have a 1950s American sound to them however I was not able to ascertain the dates of composition.

The disc is titled String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / Capricci, performed by the Auer String Quartet on the North/South label and is available on Amazon UK, but only as a download from Amazon US.

This music can be found on Spotify, earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Satisfying mildly Modern works.


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