JEAN CARTAN – The Two String Quartets

French Early Modern composer Jean Cartan [1906-1932] wrote two string quartets. He died at the tender age of 25 from tuberculosis. Both of the quartets were written when he was 21.

The First Quartet is in four movements, and is rather short. It begins in a surprisingly modern mood for one so young, with atonal melodies in abundance. A sense of drama unfolds as the intensity builds before returning to a somewhat pastoral feeling. As is the composer’s wont, this doesn’t last for long and soon the violins are again together with assertive atonal statements. Slow, abstract melodies evolve into a tempo again and the violins seem to contradict each other, before moving to a final flourish.

The next movement opens in a strange harlequin-like manner with many rhythmic changes, moving into a slow, considered passage before returning to the opening mood. A hectic moment occurs as the violins hurry towards the finish, a chord with a prolonged cello tone that hangs in the air.

The third movement is much more controlled as a serious mood unfolds. All instruments project forward movement but the combination brings a sense of quiet abstraction. The overlapping of the various instrumental lines is simply wonderful – this feeling continues to the end.

The final movement commences with an unrelenting pulse, which forms the basis of most of the movement. Violins rise and fall, occasionally expressing a sweetness until the pulse returns in a vigorous manner, with associated atonal violin thrusting melodic lines. Nearing the end, some harmony begins to appear, and the music begins to sound very fresh. The conclusion is an exaggerated gesture by the ensemble.

The Second Quartet opens with a solo violin statement before being joined by the ensemble, in a feeling of ambiguous tonality. Gently atonal, there is a tempo, with various instruments providing melodic statements. A pause changes the mood to a rubato character – this is soon discarded and the violins exchange phrases. Another pause brings a lamenting section, beautiful in its abstraction. The violins again engage in a dialogue and the cello provides a rhythm underneath the rubato musings of the violins. Now a viola pizzicato motif is heard, however the violins maintain their persistent atonal dialogue. The end comes with a sustained chord.

The next movement begins in a chaotic manner, very reminiscent of Schoenberg. The tempo is strong until a sustained tone introduces a litany of string sound effects. Now rhythmic melodic lines overlap for a time, before moving into a delightfully French feeling. There seem to be so many mood changes in this piece – now a cello ostinato serves as a springboard for violin meanderings. The music presses on, with all instruments creating a measured chaos – if such a thing is possible. A return to the sparkling French feeling leads to a terminating flourish.

The final movement, the longest by far has a dramatic cello and violin introduction – this is again conversational. A change brings with it sublime, lamenting harmonised violin lines. Gradually the tempo increases and another chaotic passage ensues. Syncopated rhythms follow, then a viola ostinato; however nothing seems to last for long – the music just won’t settle. Now we have spare violin melodies, intertwining with the cello and viola for a pronounced abstract effect. A short passage of violin trills gives way to further abstraction, replete with rhythmic interjections and a very strong attack with the bow on the first violin. Another sparse section consists of two atonal violins over a pizzicato viola, producing a remarkable abstract soundscape as a pulsing cello feeds the violins with ideas which gradually move to a conclusion.

These two quartets are profound in that they were composed at such a young age, and in the period of the 1920s, when modern music was not always fully accepted. They are wonderful works, filled with exciting melodic and rhythmic possibilities. The review CD also contains two further pieces, Introduction and Allegro for Wind Quintet and Piano and a simply vibrant and entertaining Sonatina for Flute and Clarinet.

This CD, titled Jean Cartan: Chamber Music, is performed by Quatuor Stanislas and an augmented Ensemble Stanislas. It is available on Amazon US, but not Amazon UK. It can however, also be found at Arkiv Music, and Presto Classical.

Both quartets are available on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: A fine set of quartets from a young, adventurous composer.


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