JOSEF FOERSTER – String Quartets Nos. 2 & 4

Josef Foerster [1859-1951] was a Czech Romantic composer who wrote five string quartets and several pleasing one movement works for quartet. I am going to discuss quartets 2 & 4, both of which are in three movements.

Quartet No. 2 opens with a very delicate passage. It almost sounds like a church organ, played very quietly. It is a most sombre section, very sparse. Eventually we have movement, in waltz time. This is sustained until a new passage occurs. The violin dominates until the cello takes over, leading the ensemble into new territory. Slow at first, but building as the violin takes control again and introduces variations on a new melody. Nearing the end, the key changes and the dynamics build. After a solo cello interjection we have a most alluring brief passage to conclude with a fine example of miniaturism.

The second movement begins with a longing passage. After a time, it moves into a tempo but the longing still persists. Now the mood totally changes. A repeated chord leads into a solo violin passage. Slowly the ensemble re-enters. It starts to move forward but the longing remains. This is the centrepiece of the movement; it is sustained for quite a while. It concludes by going back to solo violin but then returns to the previous style. The cello concludes the movement, which has sustained a longing character for its entirety.

The final movement, by far the longest, opens in a wonderful, delicate setting. The solo violin is very prominent and there are multiple short fugal sections at work here. Now a rhythm takes over; more a march really. The music returns to delicate for a time until the tempo lifts. This seems to be a case of alternating moods, delicate, then rhythmic. Out of this alternation comes a new passage which doesn’t last. I feel the composer is playing with me here. Another uplifting passage develops, but again, it slows right down and develops a serious nature.

Just when you least expect it, a stunning piece of solo violin leads into a brief turmoil. This is redeveloped and sustained for a time. We are then back into a floating mood which takes on a slightly serious nature with a key change from major to minor. As the end approaches the violin is very delicate and it’s all over.

Quartet No. 4 begins with a solo violin which lasts for quite a time until all of the other instruments come in.  The opening theme is mellow in the extreme. Slightly rustic, it has a great charm about it; very measured. There is some fine melodic writing and interplay between the violins. Suddenly there is a slight change in the air. The mood becomes more thoughtful with less interplay. Now a sweeping descending violin passage brings a more sombre feeling to the piece. After a time the solo violin returns; this is a wonderful passage. This is the territory of Dvorak and I hear hints of his work scattered throughout these works. A recapitulation of the opening theme allows for an ending on a note that hangs in the air. Beautiful.

The second movement is slow. It edges forward with a violin being accompanied by a slightly rhythmic motif. This is very stately. The melody changes slightly, and the ensemble follow. This fine passage continues for a time with some variation, but always referring back to the basic motif. Now the cello has a melodic role. After a brief pause, we are into folk music territory. The violins dance above the ensemble. The cello brings about a change in the tempo, back to quite slow. You can feel the ending coming as the cello comes to the fore. The melody is engrossing as it winds down with a fade.

The final movement is an allegro and is set as a fugue which gives everyone a chance to feature. There are manifold variations here but the fugal subject persists. After a brief pause, the music regathers momentum. Now a solo violin is answered by the ensemble. The fugue subject has been swept away and the piece finishes on a hanging chord.

For anybody who likes Romantic string quartets, these are fine works. There is a 2-CD set titled The Complete String Quartets by the Stamic Quartet on the Supraphon label which is available on both Amazon US and UK.

Spotify has the complete 2-CD set. There are several quartets on YouTube and the Fourth Quartet can be heard on earsense.

Listenability: A beautiful set of classic Romanticism.


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