American Modern composer Jerome William Rosen [1921–2011] wrote two string quartets, in 1953 and 1965, according to some sources. Only the First appears to have been recorded. It is in four movements.
The work opens with a sense of chaos that resembles excited birds. Settling into his work, the composer now provides a bevy of pulsing, dissonant sounds that are quite emphatic. This section ends with a sensation of turning off the power on a turntable – the music rapidly decreases in pitch and tempo. A cello motif picks up the threads and the tempo resumes, with long violin lines gliding over the ensemble. There is a degree of interplay to be heard between the violins and cello here. The intensity of the texture drops for a time but comes thundering back with the violins seemingly out of control. A rough-hewn cello section is brief, causing the intensity to return to a comparatively mild chaos. The conclusion is unexpected. This movement has been dominated by pulsing, angst-ridden violins and there is little breathing space to be found here.
One notable aspect of composers of string quartets from this era is their proclivity to produce surprisingly beautiful, abstract slow movements. So it is here, with the second movement marked lento tranquillo, which speaks for itself. It also just happens to be the longest movement in the work. Four sustained tones enter in turn and then meander freely, apparently independent of each other. A pause allows a solo violin to express for a time until the other voices rejoin to recreate the former mood. The melodies seem more prominent now as the violins ascend, before dropping into a lower register. A solo cello line is joined by first one violin, then the other as the opening feeling is revisited once more. The mood is what I would call ‘measured torrid’ as there is considerable unresolved tension to be heard here. A further solo cello passage leads to the two violins expressing lyrical lines for the first time. However, the music has a sense of underlying darkness which cannot be ignored – this is a fascinating piece of writing. Now consonant harmonised lines, with all instruments involved lead back into the opening bars. A peace has come over the work and the consonance is palpable as a feeling of susurrus completes the movement – it just wafts away.
The next movement, marked allegro vivace is rather brief and maintains a convoluted nature for its duration. For me, it is self-mocking, and brings to mind the opening allegretto movement of Shostakovich’s Third Quartet – just so inapt. I’m afraid I can find very little coherent music in this harlequin movement. The end is also very perfunctory, leaving me feeling that the whole movement is a throwaway line.
The finale begins with a string of powerful chords, a brief cello interlude and then a return to the chords. Now a scurrying feeling unfolds with the cello freely expressing in pizzicato. There is much contrast in this music as chaos regularly gives way to peace. A shrill violin sounds above the strong chords and leads into further pizzicato cello. Strong, dissonant chords are the most startling heard so far. A brief return to the scurrying leads into a mild flourish to conclude the work
This is unusual music. I really enjoyed the first two movements, but found the third particularly, dissatisfying – the fourth, less so. Maybe on another day…
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.
Listenability: An example of the somewhat inconsistent nature of early American Modern composers. Features a wonderful slow movement.