MÁTYÁS SEIBER – String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3

Hungarian-born British Early Modern composer Mátyás Seiber [1905–1960] wrote three string quartets. The two discussed works each contain three movements. The Second Quartet, contains a movement with a composer marking of blues, which always makes me look the other way, especially with music from this era.

The First Quartet, from 1924, opens with a chordal strength, which quickly moves into a wispy melodic section. Two violins appear separately and the mood becomes a little turgid, before expanding into a set of sweeping melodic lines with occasional pizzicato accompaniment. A new section of harmonised violin melodies is powerful but brief and gives way to a stilted rhythmic feeling, supporting further sweeping violins that range far and wide, strangely sometimes with a slight Spanish feeling, which is particularly evident in the cello part. A return to the harmonised violin lines is welcome, it is so attractive. Nearing the end, the piece tends disintegrate and strongly harmonised ensemble voices conclude.

A lento movement is introduced by a solo violin musing in a modal manner, before a deep ensemble gathers to support its melody. The appearance of a drone passage supports the continued modality with low murmurings and a tense, but stately passage unfolds. Now a stilted rhythm emerges and the modal nature is no more as an attractive violin melody is harmonised within a sparse, beautiful passage, which is understated. A return to the previous modal nature is a wonderful sound that persists until the end. I love this music.

The finale is brief, but energised as the cello positively throbs, evoking a sense of being stuck in traffic. A changing of the mood releases the violins for a time, but the rhythm returns, only to dissolve into a poignant passage of plaintive strings. Now the rhythm returns for a final time and the last notes are reminiscent of dissonant car horns.

This quartet is not very long, but the sounds that are heard make it very attractive to me. Interestingly, Seiber was 19 when this was composed.

The Third Quartet, composed from 1948-51 and titled Quartetto Lirico is considerably longer, and commences with a more abstract nature than anything encountered in the previous work, revealing clearly the 25-year gap between them. A nebulous feeling has the violins moving through various musical moods, from agitated to wondrous. It is over two minutes before the cello is heard, but it only adds to the prevalent character as the dual violins persist in their searching lines, with occasional assertions from the ensemble. Now the violin expresses passionately over the quietest of drones – this music is a world away from the First Quartet. A flurry of violins brings forth a chaotic passage with ensemble interjections before the players seem to integrate, in a manner similar to the movement opening. Solo cello lines appear as the violins lurk, leading to a final soft, sustained chord.

The second movement opens with a skittish atmosphere, the violins seemingly wandering aimlessly, only now and again offering up a structure with a pizzicato viola anchoring this mood. A hint of a rhythm unfolds and the pizzicato is freely heard from several instruments, leading to an agitated passage. The music seems to mock itself, with trivial melodies from all concerned, which leads to a further emphasis on pizzicato. Now one violin races in a random manner, with the end being one pizzicato ‘pop’.

The final movement, marked lento espressivo features a resonant cello tone which serves as a harmonic background for long passionate violin lines. The cello is eerily murky as it makes deep groaning sounds. This evokes a feeling of stasis until gradually the violins offer up a period of frantic moments before returning to the static mood. Expressive it is, as the violins turn to a quivering technique to support the cello for a time. This is a truly fascinating, extended musical space – one with great emotional depth. Occasionally the violins stir, but it is always briefly as the cello rumbles with long tones in its lowest register. The final moments feature first quivering violins, and then long tones, to conclude.

I find these to be fascinating, forward-looking works, with the progress from the First to the Third to be quite profound.

The review CD titled Mátyás Seiber: String Quartets 1-3, performed by the Edinburgh Quartet, on the Delphian Label, is available on Amazon US and UK.

This disc can be heard on Spotify, while the Third Quartet is on YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Fascinating, expressive Early Modern quartets.


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