British Contemporary composer Nicholas Simpson [born 1958] has written two string quartets. They are neither numbered nor named but I can tell you that the First is in G minor and the Second in C major, although the C major doesn’t spend much time in that most common of keys. Arnold Schoenberg once mused:
There is still plenty of good music remaining to be written in C major
And there is plenty of evidence for that statement on show here. However, I am going to discuss the G minor at this time – it consists of three movements, with no composer markings.
The opening is very appealing with languid melodic lines on display. All instruments pass around a simple phrase and, when not playing it, they tend to harmonise it. A touch of dissonance occurs occasionally and this is a most meditative, simple music. The mild dissonance is becoming more obvious, bringing a sense of conflict. Now the music turns turgid for a time, with obvious harmonic clashes and the sustained tones give way briefly to short, rhythmic phrases, really flutters – these create a whole new, somewhat charming mood with wonderful melodic lines. The cello follows the phrasing with short, pizzicato jabs. A pause leads into a phase where further gentle dissonances unfold – this creates a fascinating mood. The intensity rises, but it is non-confronting although there is a sense of tonal ambivalence. That is until another turgid passage and the dynamics rise with strong bowings. This quickly subsides and the music moves through several different soundspaces. This is why I listen to string quartets – the intimacy is profound. There is also an immense sense of calm as the ensemble lumbers, almost plodding as it moves forward and as the end of the movement approaches, the cello spars but the violins don’t respond. An incredibly shrill violin expresses the inexpressible, and a gentle pizzicato cello has the last word. This movement has been an exercise in stasis.
The next movement begins in a more forceful manner, with a prominent use of triplets and a sense of competition within the ensemble, as each instrument reaches out to be heard. I’ve already experienced more energy than in the whole of the previous movement. This is another abstract soundspace as further conflict occurs. The violins move forward but the cello is strong and disrupts the mood. Things become quite animated, with further tension. The busyness is beguiling and so far from the first movement. Becoming almost frenzied, a wall of sound is formed. Very powerful complicated melodies strain to be heard – there are many brief skirmishes until the mood ends. I love pizzicato cello, especially when it is played jazz walking bass style – it’s probably one of my favourite textures. It doesn’t last and after a brief period of frenzy, it ends.
The third movement opens with a sense of peace that is truly marvellous. Two violins mimic each other in a set of beautiful, melodic expressions. Echoes of the first movement are heard with long, sustained tones. There is something mysterious about this harmony as it creates a heavenly texture. It sounds a little like something that John Tavener would produce. Out of the lamentations, a period of optimism is manufactured by one violin. After a time the cello responds and we have a brief return to the long tones before the optimism is again presented by several voices. This is a terrific piece of music, very thoughtful, bordering on spiritual. A new passage features long tones, this could have been late Beethoven, possibly Opus 132 in A minor. There is a strong sense of sadness here, bordering on pathos. The music edges forward with the cello playing ostinatos before one violin goes solo and the second violin converses with a sense of dissonance. The whole section is just so sparse and filled with a sense of melancholy. Again the music moves forward at a snail’s pace, creating slow, sparse waves of chords. This is the beginning of the end, and a fade concludes.
It’s probably pretty obvious for regular readers that I am drawn to the spiritual in music, and particularly string quartets, which I believe have a mortgage on this feeling, in chamber music at least.
As noted the other Quartet, in C major is anything but conservative and explores many different emotions, I would say it is deeper than the discussed work.
These two pieces can be found on a CD, Remembered Music, performed by the Zelkova Quartet, on the Stone Records label. The disc also contains a work for quartet and soprano, Remembered Music. I had a little trouble finding it on CD but Presto Music have copies.
Listenability: Profoundly introverted, spiritual music – my favourite kind.