HENRI LAZAROF – Two Late Quartets

Bulgarian Modern composer Henri Lazarof [1932–2013] wrote nine string quartets. Born and raised in Bulgaria he moved to the US in his mid- twenties to study, and stayed there for the rest of his life.

Inspired by last week’s journey into Modernism with Baculewski, I decided to revisit the style and am going to discuss Lazarof’s Quartets Nos. 7 and 9.

The Seventh Quartet opening features some dynamic violin lines, and a little glissando before moving into a gentle section of harmonics. The violins leave the sound effects behind, but after a short, measured section, cry out with a series of lamenting melodies. A sound of quivering bows is followed by some particularly harsh violin phrases as the music moves freely between the measured and the agitated. Atonal harmonies are wonderfully refreshing and the music finishes on a slow flourish, if that is possible, and a single plucked note.

The second movement has a staccato chordal pattern, with a smattering of pizzicato, eventually moving into a chaotic, but gentle passage of seemingly random utterances. Now the violins break free and become the most prominent voices. A quiet section sounds superb, before the chaos returns. The end is vague.

The final movement has a solo cello playing intermittent phrases before the violins move in with a mysterious, morose mood. Totally bereft of motion, their expressions are only occasionally interrupted by brief, frantic intrusions. The composer clearly has a liking for the abstract as this quality is heard right throughout these two quartets, with this particular section being most alluring. Now the violins spin out dissonant random lines and we have chaos alternating with marvellously peaceful moments. Some of the solo violin playing is especially moving, although the feeling is usually destroyed by further chaotic incursions. Nearing the end, there is an especially delicate passage before the music is totally destroyed, in a noisy manner, to conclude.

On to the Ninth Quartet. Running to nearly 20 minutes, this work is in six, mainly brief movements. Given the brevity of some movements, I intend to discuss it mostly without individual reference to them.

The work opens with a powerful solo violin section, very evocative in its meandering but serious nature. When the ensemble enters, they add to the mood, albeit merely projecting small statements behind the first violin. Gradually the ensemble is complete and the violin continues its journey until a brief pause brings about a peace. This section is a marvellous piece of writing that moves through several expressive passages.

Now a new sound, one of pizzicato and atonal string sound effects moves into a most abstract dialogue. The ensemble becomes animated for a moment and conversations can be heard. Strange, dissonant chords edge forward to a fade. A tempo forms, with the rhythm very syncopated, and eventually dissolves into an unusual rubato passage that appears to have no formal structure. All instruments express mostly independently but do come together for some harmonised lines. A soft, quivering of bows fades with a sense of susurrus.

A violin emerges out of the silence and its lamenting line is joined by the second violin. A plangent cello joins the dialogue and a rich chordal harmony is achieved, always very peaceful. Moving straight into a turgid section, the violins grate at first before mellowing for a short time. Again a peace is found and the music is left to hang in the air.

The final movement commences with an abstract atonal sound world, sometimes quiet and sparse, at other times, rich harmonically. A fade out leads into an atonal flourish which quickly softens. Now the cello presents long, sustained phrases behind the gentle, atonal violins. At times the music is barely audible, but when it can be heard, displays a still abstract, but gentle pastoral feeling. An extended ending is created by a long faded section.

I feel that I may have crossed a personal line with this type of music. I definitely do not enjoy some Contemporary works, but I now appear to be achieving acceptance of music that I would not have considered at the commencement of this blog, three years ago. There you have it.

One further point about these two works, unfortunately they are contained on two different CDs. There was probably a pairing many years ago, as I have the pieces in MP3 format. Even the two CDs can be hard to find, but I have seen them on Amazon US and UK occasionally. There is a disc containing the Fourth and Fifth Quartets which is still available at several sites on the internet. I recently ordered a copy from Germany.

Both quartets, the Seventh and the Ninth are on Spotify, earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Quite noisy, but I found them appealing.


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