Lithuanian Late Romantic composer Jurgis Karnavičius, [1884–1941] wrote at least four string quartets. The first two have been recently released on CD. Just as a general observation, the quartets are rather conservative for their time, possibly from around 1920. I shall discuss the Second Quartet, which is a forty minute, four movement work and composed c. 1917.
The piece begins with a powerful viola phrase, which is echoed by a violin. A flurry ensues and the composer brings forward a stunning section of melodic development, with the first violin leading the ensemble through various, sometimes stately, sometimes quiet moods. Now the second violin creates a motif and the ensemble moves into tempo, and a section of lamenting unfolds. The music soon returns to its former optimistic nature and the violin offers up powerful phrases. A brief pause changes the mood into a short section for solo violin, together with a second violin adding harmonies. This is a stunning moment, with a return to the ensemble, soon after. Really the entire movement could be characterised as a solo violin accompanied by the ensemble, so dominant is the presence of the violin. The intensity slowly increases to a moderate frenzy, with the violin reaching into its upper register, before the frenzy subsides and a return to a soulful violin with sympathetic backing leads to the end.
The next movement opens in a tempo, with the violins exchanging phrases for a time. The ensemble drift in after a while and the tempo is paused. Upon its return, the two violins again duel. Another pause brings a new emotional space, with no hint of a tempo. This sparse passage is truly wonderful as the violins produce a charming conversation with only spare ensemble contributions. A pizzicato interlude brings about another new mood with imaginative writing to the fore and a return of a tempo. The music really reaches out here, sometimes speech-like. The final section develops a melodic phrase that is passed around the ensemble. A searing solo violin line brings about a conclusion.
The third, andante movement opens in a particularly melodic fashion. Again, while beautiful, this is music not of its time – it has a truly Romantic nature. The composer pours melody upon melody here, and they are all sumptuous. The next passage is now very sparse and at this slow tempo, it is something to behold as gentle melodic lines are again passed around the various instruments. Strengthening slightly, there is a brief section with vigour – it doesn’t last. Instead the viola and cello pick up on a four to the bar motif, in accompanying the violins. Again the sound begins to thicken, or perhaps throb in a return to the previous passage. Nearing the end, some wonderful melodies for the violins lead to a fade.
The finale is in a moderate tempo and a churning rhythm. This is achieved by the viola and cello working as one. A passage for solo violins is quite moving and belies the tempo marking of allegro. A return to some earlier material is quite lamenting and very rewarding. The violins reach out over a sparse ensemble and I am drawn into the music. A sparse section develops into a tempo, but, as usual it doesn’t last. The appearance of four harmonised rhythmic strokes concludes this fine piece
I think I have been so distracted by the melodies that I didn’t mention the fine harmonies to be found here. Be sure that they are beautiful, sometimes beyond words.
The review CD, String Quartets 1 & 2 by the Vilnius Quartet on the Ondine label is a recent release. It can be found at Amazon and several internet sites.
The CD can be heard on Spotify and YouTube.
Listenability: Beautiful music – not of its time.