JEAN PAPINEAU-COUTURE – Canadian Modernism

Canadian Contemporary composer Jean Papineau-Couture [1916–2000] wrote four string quartets. I am going to discuss the first two works.

The First Quartet, which is in two short movements, opens with a fascinating abstract mood. Marked grave, a lamenting solo violin is soon joined by the ensemble in a slow, but pulsing manner that sits firmly on the beat as it moves forward. The violin expresses long tones and, after a time, there is some harmonisation – the dynamics rise momentarily, before dropping back slightly. Now there are strong harmonised interjections, followed by a return to the pulsing feeling. Powerful violin statements are augmented by the second violin – the end comes as a short, peaceful lamenting sound. This music reminds me of Charles Ives’ magical hanging chords and also some of jazz composer Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America, which was influenced by Ives.

The second movement, marked presto, features an excited violin leading the music into a wonderful sound-space, at tempo. The melodies are very interesting – slightly atonal, but ultimately fascinating. As the music unfolds, the tempo abates slightly and the violin leads the ensemble into a different mood, somewhat tense, before it states a short virtuosic solo violin passage. The rhythm comes back immediately and the mood is propulsive as it moves through several chord changes. The violin repeatedly works on a distinctive melody, which is echoed by the ensemble. A strong chordal passage brings about a dynamic ending.

The Second Quartet is in four movements and is longer than the First. The music commences with an abstract, atonal flourish, complemented by ensemble mutterings. A dark chord ensues and the sound becomes rhythmic; there is again, a sense of tension here as the rhythm is discarded. A solo cello passage is thoughtful, before a sombre violin returns to muse above the cello, with fine, sparse, dissonant melodies. A pause leads to an energised atonal passage which diminishes into another quiet, atonal mood. The ending is a long, quivering solo violin line.

The next movement opens in a thundering, chordal manner, interrupted only by a short, atonal cello statement. Now the chordal rhythm is played at a lower intensity and soon moves into a quiet passage of violin expression. The opening strength returns; it is somewhat reminiscent of the final moments of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, played by a string quartet. The finish is a lone violin melody, followed by a long pause and then a most confronting flourish.

The third movement is an andante, and is somewhat reminiscent of the opening movement of the First Quartet. It is a burbling, abstract soundscape with the violin conveying strong, long melodic lines over a desolate ensemble sound. A solo violin flourish leads into a harmonised section, which brings to mind some of the early symphonic writing of Hans Werner Henze. A pause leads to a change into a sparse mood, with intermittent pizzicato strokes accompanying a distant violin. Now the violin lifts in intensity and the ensemble follow with sustained, harmonised chords. A brief period of chaos ensues but is soon dampened, and the violin leads into an engrossing faded ensemble conclusion.

The finale is very short and commences with a powerful solo cello statement which is eventually joined by the violins as they investigate the dynamics. This is quite a stark feeling, but also rewarding. A loud, aggressive passage rushes to the end.

I really like these works, especially the brief First Quartet. The review CD, performed by the Molinari Quartet is a superb set – it also contains String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4, both one movement works, together with a string trio, which just happens to be the longest piece on the disc.

The CD, titled Papineau-Couture: Quatuors à cordes Nos. 1-3 & Trio Slanò on the Atmar Classique label, is available on Amazon UK and Presto Classical, and as a download on Amazon US.

The works can be heard on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Fine, absorbing modern music.


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