JOSEPH HOROVITZ – Two String Quartets

Austrian-born British Early Modern composer Joseph Horovitz [born 1926] wrote at least five string quartets. Although I have classified him as Early Modern, there is also a sense of Romanticism to be found in his music. I am going to discuss String Quartets Nos. 4 and 5.

The Fourth Quartet, in three movements, features a tempo marking of grave maestoso (stately or majestic), and opens in this manner. A rich, deep solo cello line is harmonised by violins, making for a most expressive introduction. The violins work their way into a strong section, briefly pause and then, become slightly wistful as they dialogue leaving the cello to walk pizzicato and jazz-like. Now a feeling of drama unfolds and the violins become more animated, in a prancing manner. A return to the sound of a solo cello, again walking leads to an alluring violin passage where harmonised lines approach, but never quite realise, a sense of atonality. There is a passion in this music, before a violin concludes with a line that floats over a sustained ensemble chord.

The next movement, marked allegromolto, liberates the piece and suggests a slightly perfunctory character, with a measured section of lilting violins. A brief pause ensues and now the violins come again with more authority, again slightly dissonant. A pulsing cello phrase brings energy and a return to the opening character. The end is a slightly mocking pizzicato over a strong cello phrase.

The final lento movement is especially beautiful as gentle melodies move in waves over a sparse accompaniment – this is music of the heavens. A solo violin first expresses lyrically, then moves into a trilling pattern, which leads the ensemble to return with distant, evocative sounds. A new section features sparse intertwining melodic lines, with the cello being prominent. A brief moment of tension soon dissipates and the end is rather casual.

The Fifth Quartet, in one movement, is again majestic in its beauty. Several lamenting violin lines are heard before a tempo is established. There is some tonal ambiguity here as the music becomes a little abstract. A chaos ensues, with rhythmic violin punctuations creating tension. Now serenity returns as the violins move in a slow, expressive manner – they just manage to keep the music alive. This is a magnificent mood, with a divine feeling not often favoured by Contemporary composers.

A shift to a strongly rhythmic passage leads to the two violins conversing at a rapid pace, with occasional ensemble interspersions. The feeling turns almost chaotic as the violins constantly criss cross each other’s slightly dissonant melodic lines. The intensity eventually gives way to pensive violins over a persistent viola motif. Another brief pause initiates a sumptuous passage, where the cello provides a rich, harmonic and rhythmic environment.

Another pause brings a return to chaos, with the dynamics varying widely as the passage unfolds. A brief pizzicato moment slows the pace and lowers the intensity, back to an almost complete stasis – this is particularly moving as the violins evoke a sense of wonder, which is continued to a most satisfying conclusion.

These two works are very exhilarating, and contain many fine moments.

The review CD, Joseph Horovitz – Fantasia & Quartets, performed by the Carducci Quartet on their label, Carducci Classics, also contains two other significant works – a fine Fantasia on a Theme of Couperin by the presumably augmented Carducci Ensemble and a stunning Oboe Quartet, featuring one Nicholas Daniel on oboe. The CD is available on Amazon US and UK.

This music can be heard on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Charming, captivating string quartet works.


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