MIKLOS ROZSA – The Two String Quartets

Miklos Rozsa [1907-1995] was a Hungarian composer who wrote three string quartets. The first was not approved for publication, and although a manuscript exists, Rozsa never included it in his list of works. Thus we are left with two string quartets, both in four movements.

The first quartet opens with a solo cello moving into a fugue. This is a light and breezy melody, very attractive. The mood then changes into a busy passage, led by the violins. Now we are back to a lamenting passage with both violins prominent. The cello interjects and a violin picks up on the phrase to move into a tempo. The viola propels the music and the cello and violins take up the challenge. After a short rhythmic section, the calm returns with a salient cello. Moving towards the end is a most graceful passage.

The next movement starts as an agitated passage, with propulsive violins. A trill from the cello leads to a section where a tempo takes over; the music becomes a little chaotic. This emphatic section moves into a cello motif, then the violins are set free. They duet briefly, then move into half-tempo. The duet returns, with a call and response between the violins. A single pizzicato note leads into an attractive fade.

The third movement, marked  lento, begins with a longing passage. One of the violins plays in a low register, while the other is much higher. There is an ethnic sounding modal passage; very beautiful. A mournful phrase becomes prominent and is picked up by all of the instruments. Now a tempo begins and there is gentle chaos which lingers for a while. The violins collect themselves until we have a striking section which fades to nothing. A solo violin is gradually joined by another and the cello offers support in a most alluring section. There is no rhythm here, just two sparse violins. It all ends on a cello beat. This is a wonderful movement.

The final movement starts in an aggressive fashion, with strong rhythms to support it. The violins again engage in a conversation. This seems to be a characteristic of Rozsa; there are many instances to be found in these works. Now the cello joins in and we have a slightly anguished but enjoyable mood. The opening rhythmic pattern returns. Now the conversation includes the cello. There is a lot going on here with the violins creating a heavily rhythmic passage. The work ends with an ascending motif leading to a flourish. This is a sparkling conclusion to a fine piece.

The second quartet opens on a sharp chord and then moves into an atonal passage. The ensemble pause. The violin returns and gradually the ensemble re-enters. This is taut music, pushing the extremes of tonality. The mood then lightens with a characteristic conversational passage. It starts to get tense again and the rhythm picks up before dropping back into conversation. There is a lightening of the mood for a time until the tension returns. A slightly chaotic passage ensues, but it is not without its attractions. Abruptly, a solo cello plucks a few notes and it ends on a chord.

The next movement starts with a slow sparse, intangible mood. It’s both happy and sad at the same time. The mood is broken by a pulsating section where the violins interlock into a motif. The cello leads the piece back into sparse territory. Each member takes turns in solo melodic sections. The violin is in the high register and the music becomes dissonant as it fades.

The third movement begins with a recurrent cello motif which gives impetus to the violin lines. The mood is slightly hectic in this short movement. The cello solos over pizzicato violins and the music becomes almost rhapsodic. However, it won’t settle and concludes with a series of atonal notes.

The final movement sounds very Modern with a lot going on until it segues into a cello motif which anchors a violin conversation. For a brief time, the cello is silent and the violins continue their duet. The music then turns to a slightly atonal lilting section. A key change heightens the effect. A sense of chaos ensues before the cello finds its voice and we reach a sustained climax. A long, ascending, frenetic phrase leads us to the final chord.

These are fine quartets, with some very beautiful writing. I was particularly taken by the many violin duets; they really give character to the music.

The quartets are available in at least two versions, both available on Amazon US and UK. My review CD is titled The Two String Quartets by the Flesch Quartet on the ASV label, which also contains a Sonata for Two Violins. There is another version, on Naxos titled String Quartets 1 & 2 – String Trio by the Tippett Quartet.

These works are available on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Wonderful mid-twentieth century quartets.


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