ILHAN USMANBAS – Turkish Modernist

Turkish Modern composer Ilhan Usmanbas [born 1921] wrote three string quartets but I believe only the First has been recorded. He studied with the Turkish Five – information on this group of composers can be found quite easily on Google. The work under discussion was composed in 1947, and is in four movements.

It opens with an allegro composer marking, and quickly establishes a busy, lyrical mood with all four instruments contributing equally to the sound. Now the violins take on a more assertive role, before the dynamics drop and we have a unified character, similar to the beginning. The music is chaotic, but enjoyably so as many lines crisscross each other’s paths, creating a mild dissonance. A new sound develops, one of prominent violins in duet with the viola and cello moving to a mostly supportive role. Some stabbing chords, with changing harmonies lead the ensemble into a thoughtful passage. This is enhanced by a cello throbbing with two violins to a peaceful ritard (gradually slowing down) for a considered end.

The next, adagio movement has a lamenting violin with a wide vibrato to its tone, while the ensemble makes gentle assertions in a low register. The violin retains its presence, but with longer tones and a greater depth of feeling. The ensemble are only heard expressing one chord every 3-4 bars. These chords are quite interesting as they continually adopt differing harmonies. Now the tenor becomes quite serious and I am fascinated by the sound of these scant chordal interspersions. A change has the cello taking over the role of the violin and its resonance is particularly moving. This cello passage, which has some ensemble statements, leads to the conclusion.

Rapid, fiery chords begin the next, quite brief movement but it is not long before a dancing violin finds itself engaged in a violin duet. The cello joins with rhythmically strong tones, which are expressed in brief bursts – the violins become more animated although the duet continues. A pause has the cello solo for a moment and it builds a pulsing line that seems to excite the violins. They repeat the opening chords then drift away, in a perfunctory manner.

The final movement, marked prestimisso, I think they mean prestissimo (see presto), starts in a manner totally foreign to the rest of the work. The melodies are firmly Middle-Eastern and again, quite animated. They now move up a notch with the ensemble providing spirited support. The rhythms are also of an ethnic nature. A change to a peaceful passage has the two violins expressing sparse dissonances – one violin goes very low in its register and is joined by a similar tone from the cello. Now a persistent phrase brings the whole ensemble to bear on this one phrase, which is then deconstructed by the ensemble. A rhythmic motif appears in the violins and when the ensemble enters, there is a sense of chaos. Another dramatic change occurs with pulsing pizzicato underpinning a delicate, gentle melody. This soon develops into a passage that constantly circles within itself. The rate of mood changes has now become a little unnerving, as a tense exchange with a violin and ensemble chords ensues. The previously mentioned phrase returns, but is transformed into first a sheer harmonic sound and then into an ascending violin line. A flurry of chords moves into an ostinato, but only for two iterations, before another ritard passage makes for a strange conclusion.

To me, this final movement doesn’t sound like the composer of the first three movements. I think I shall put it down to contrast but it certainly sounds to me like the composer’s Turkish sensibility.

The review CD, New Music String Quartet Complete Columbia, a 10-CD set on Sony Classical is available from Amazon US and UK, and probably cheaper elsewhere. Most of the music can be downloaded as MP3. Unfortunately, the final movement of the Usmanbas is not available by this method, probably because it is quite long.

The whole set is on Spotify and the quartet can be heard on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Creative mid-20th century work that inhabits two worlds.


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