ARTHUR LOURIE – Three String Quartets

Russian/American composer Arthur Lourie [1892-1966] wrote three string quartets. In length and complexity they are like the Three Bears. One is substantial, one is medium and the third, very short. I’m going to discuss the first and see how I go from there.

Quartet No. 1 runs for 30 minutes and is in two movements, marked lento and grave, which are both extremely slow. Sounds wonderful!

The first movement runs for 19 minutes and opens with a meandering, intangible theme. It rises in intensity then falls away into a new section.  A loud rhythmic passage gives way to the opening mood again. This is repeated for quite a while; abstract serenity to loud chordal sections. These abstract melodies are wonderful; slightly atonal and sometimes a little agitated. The piece then moves into a dialogue between the cello and the ensemble. This is very mysterious music, I love it. A touch of chaos leads into some string sound effects interspersed with melodic chordal passages.

About halfway through this movement, we have a return to solo violin with occasional sparse interjections. It develops into a set of dancing melodies, mildly dissonant, eventually breaking into a rhythmic pattern and becoming a little darker. This is very controlled, Modern music. Again some further string sound effects are heard. The piece is fully in tempo now. Some alluring, slightly ethnic melodies, drift in and out of the mood. It finishes with a measured atonal flourish.

The second movement opens with some slightly dissonant chords in tempo. The violins wander around the accompaniment. There are hints of middle-eastern scales here. A charming melody develops in the first violin with a very static harmonic background. This mood persists for a while, until a key change has the music turn slightly chaotic with some atonality. It then settles into a positive rhythm building in tension until it just stops. It continues with another gentle atonal section with the strings playing as one. Nearing the end, the piece moves into tempo, and features lyrical melodies. These soon morph back into atonality. It has a false ending with three pizzicato ensemble flourishes, a five-second silence and then a seemingly random sequence of notes. There you have it!

I can really appreciate this quartet. It features the kind of soundscapes where I like to spend time.

String Quartet No. 2 runs for seven minutes! It opens with a slightly dissonant march, then it changes into a more positive mood. The dissonant march returns and is followed by a folk-like section. This leads into a series of chordal interjections. The volume then drops to a whisper before the violin leads the ensemble into a folk-like dance through many different moods and tempo changes. As the piece winds down, some of the opening themes reoccur. This time it’s another false ending with a five-second break leading into a seemingly random passage to conclude.

This quartet, being so short, makes me wonder what it was all about. It was written in 1923, so I guess there were different ideas floating around at that time. I’m constantly surprised at how some Modernist composers end their movements. I can recall a number of times writing ‘It just stops’ lately. Oh well.

The third quartet has three movements. The first, marked Prelude, opens with a sparkling little passage, and wanders around this for the whole 90 seconds of the movement!

The second movement, marked Chorale begins tenderly. It slowly inches forward. There is a little dissonance towards the end, but I find it be spiritual in mood. It is very lyrical.

The third movement, marked Hymne, is again, a little march-like although I could imagine a hymn being sung to it. Featuring a slow, but pronounced tempo, the attractive opening theme is developed in various ways. It is a lot more confident by the time the end arrives.

The last movement, marked Marche Funebre (funeral march), opens with a very low cello melody, and a small violin diversion before a return to the introductory cello theme. The composer then applies a set of variations to a melodic motif for some time. The cello is still prominent, offering up dark melodies, as befits the title. As it nears the conclusion, there is a beautiful little passage with whispering violins. Then it just fades away.

These are relatively youthful quartets, all written before 1927. To me, they fit the Modern mould of these times although the two long slow movements of the first quartet surprised me. Basically, Lourie’s quartets are reflective and, if I may speculate, seem more than a little spiritual.

As to availability, there is a set containing the Utrecht SQ on the ASV label at Amazon UK. I couldn’t find it on Amazon US or Spotify, but some quartets are available for sampling on YouTube and Quartets Nos. 1 and 3 are on earsense.

Listenability: Very introspective, in the main.


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