American composer Jefferson Friedman [born 1974] has written at least three string quartets. The Third Quartet was written in 2005, and is in three movements.
The work begins very quietly. In fact I couldn’t hear any music until about ten seconds into the piece. What follows is a slightly bleak sustained chord, which increases in volume for around 30 seconds; with the dynamics being almost excruciating. Now a violin takes over with intense, rapid phrases. The tonality changes frequently and there are many string sound effects. The volume suddenly drops, leaving one violin to offer up a sparse section. This leads into a brief chordal passage, then more rapid violin phrases, until it stops abruptly. This movement is very brief, clocking in at 2:34. Interestingly, it bears no obvious relation to the rest of the piece.
The second movement is long, 17:39 long! It opens with a solo violin, a sparse atonal melody, with lots of spaces between the notes. The ensemble enter, but are way in the background. The violin is featured in a long, drawn-out melody. Now murmurings begin to appear and a deep, resonant solo cello comes into play with a strong melodic statement. After a time, a solo violin returns, still ever so gently, for a quiet passage. A brief galloping motif interlude gives way to a racing violin, supported with string sound effects. The galloping motif returns, followed by another racing passage. This has become a pattern, rapid sections flow into one another, all the while maintaining the brisk tempo. There are many changes in tonality, and many and varied sound effects as the piece progresses through various moods.
There are sections where the violins soar, and at other times, just the pulsating motif is heard. An almost silent passage ensues, with an incredibly soft violin, and mood. This is a fabulous feeling, as the ensemble edge their way into the music. This section is repeated, but this time in a more conservative manner; it contains some stunning, enticing violin. This is reminiscent of parts of the fourth movement, the adagio, of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12. High praise, indeed. The solo violin is absolutely beautiful, teasing out long lines, with gentle ensemble work. The violin soars into its high register and melodic movement begins to appear in the background.
Now we are back to solo violin, working a motif through different harmonies. A second violin is almost frenzied in its rhythmic mode. The tension builds, almost unbearably, before cutting back to nothingness, then starting again. A brief return to the previously mentioned motif, increases in dynamics and leads to an abrupt stop.
The final movement emulates the second in that no music is heard for a time. A low drone eventually ensues, with the cello making up most of the sound, even though there are violins present. A change in tonality introduces an intangible violin melody that floats over the drone. This section has a spiritual quality, similar to John Tavener. The violin is entrancing as it follows the occasional changes in tonality. A substantially long fade leads to the conclusion of the work.
This is a wonderful piece of writing. I would classify this style as Modern Contemporary; characterised by an extreme range in dynamics, periods of silence, frenetic rhythms and deeply moving sections. I think it is an illustration of the many different styles that Modernity has produced. It’s a fabulous piece of music. String Quartet No. 2, also on the disc, is similar, but has more of the rhythmic material and less of the peaceful. I intend to discuss it at another time.
It’s also worth mentioning that there are two tracks on the CD which follow the popular modern trend of ‘techno’ remixes. They are extensively deconstructed versions of some of his works, presumably string quartets. It wasn’t obvious to me as to which string quartets were used as the source for these tracks, based on one listening.
This CD, titled Jefferson Friedman: Quartets, on the Naxos label, performed by the Chiara String Quartet is on Amazon US and UK, but only as a download on Presto, and you know what that means. Although, having said that, Naxos have been remarkably resilient in keeping things available from their own website distribution outlet.
Listenability: Fascinating Contemporary work.