Contemporary Finnish composer Leif Segerstam has written at least thirty string quartets. There are only three currently available on CD, Nos. 2, 6 and 7. The two latter works are both orchestral in conception and epic in character, which is probably something to do with the fact that he has also composed over 300 symphonies. I am going to discuss the Sixth Quartet as it seems to be more readily available than the others.
The work opens in a slightly mysterious manner, with orchestral overtones. A brief introduction gives way to a solo violin supported by strong string sounds. These sounds become quivering before the cello invokes a change of mood. Now rapidly descending violin lines are accompanied by rhythmic thrusts and a pause again introduces mystery – this is a very sparse passage. A violin reaches out and cello glissandos are heard in the background, then quivering. For the first time we have a tempo, and the sound is atonal. Another pause brings about a solo cello statement over further quivering violins. Pauses seem to abound in this movement and another brings on a delicate, abstract mood. This formless phase again has the violins reaching out, to a stodgy cello feeling. There is a sense of chaos here, definitely without a tempo as atonal violins make thrusting sounds, and the level of intensity is high. A brief shrill solo violin passage with little accompaniment is soothing to the soul. Now the ensemble combine again with more mystery – the violins are sensitive and lead into a sparsity which ends the movement.
Lilting, atonal violins introduce the next movement and they gently drift along against the background of a recurring viola motif. Gradually the violins increase in intensity and projection – the viola now repeats a different motif. A powerful cello statement adds to an emerging chaos. Strong violins now dominate with much quivering of bows, as they investigate various changes in harmony. Finally a pause brings about a sparsity, with the violins gently expressing various strange melodies. Again the intensity rises as the violins work themselves into a frenzy, accompanied by a rhythmic cello. A further mood change ensues as the violins trill gently and a long pause leads into a solo violin statement. Nearing the end, there are brief periods of silence as the music just dissolves.
The third movement begins with a frantic flurry of activity – this is sound, not music. Slowly a structure begins to form but it is soon overpowered by ponderous rhythmic flourishes. The feeling is now one of frenzy, seemingly relentless. Minutes pass and there is no relief from the intensity. Finally a solo violin interlude featuring many glissandos brings a peace. The second violin begins to develop a brief frenzy but soon leads to another substantial pause. There is more silence than sound now and the music simply disappears. I have to say, this is quite a disturbing movement, totally out of character with what has come before.
Vague, rumbling sounds introduce the final movement. The frenzy has disappeared and the mystery has returned. Sparse melodies overlap to create a measured, atonal mood. The accompaniment is solid, but quite mournful. Both violins develop lamenting lines, intertwining with the rubato feeling generated by the viola and cello. The mood slowly intensifies and one of the violins goes into pyrotechnics as it traverses its complete range, in a solo passage. More silence initiates a new, placid but still abstract feeling with mostly sparse violins interrupted by an occasional cello stroke. The music now becomes quite transcendent for a time, with minimal activity. This beguiling passage slowly intensifies and what sounds like a piano introduces several loud notes. The conclusion is similar to the previous movements, leaving us with a feeling of evanescence.
I’m not sure what to make of this music, but I feel it may have a New Age sensibility to it, something that I am not drawn to. Certainly the composer deals in extremes in his music, particularly in the volume of his output. I think I shall leave it at that.
The review CD is titled Segerstam: String Quartet No. 6 / Rituals in La, on the BIS label. The string quartet is performed by the Segerstam Quartet. There is also a Segerstam piece for wind quintet, and Rituals in La, composed by Lasse Werner. This disc is available on Amazon US and UK. String Quartet No. 7 is also available, but a little harder to find. I believe that String Quartet No. 2 can be found on a disc paired with music of Rautavaara, another Finnish composer.
Listenability: Not sure that this long work has a lot to say – possibly one for the New Agers.