NORWEGIAN 20th Century String Quartets

This compilation contains string quartets by the following Norwegian composers: Klaus Egge [1906-1979]; Fartein Valen [1887-1952]; Johan Kvandal [1919-1999]; and Alfred Janson [born 1937]. I shall be discussing Egge and Kvandal.

Klaus Egge wrote his one and only string quartet in 1933; it contains four movements. Commencing with a largo, it gently eases its way into a pastoral mood. The cello is beautiful as it wraps itself around the violin melodies. A stately section ensues, then the music returns to two violins. The melodies are very fine, it sounds a little like a tone poem. Soulful violins move the piece forward very slowly, with the occasional ensemble chordal interjection. The violins conclude on a sustained tone.

The next movement opens in a brisk, jaunty manner and a strong melody is developed, and redeveloped, as it moves forward. Variations abound, with pizzicato added to the mix. The first violin is especially strong. Suddenly the violin becomes tense, leading into a brief, slightly harsh cello section. Now we have a flurry of action; all instruments sound excitable until a pizzicato cello passage takes the movement out.

The third movement, marked andante, is again of a pastoral nature, and somewhat melancholy. The melodies are quite something as the two violins seem to spiral about each other, with a viola pizzicato accompaniment in the background. The cello makes a brief, strong, solo statement before it is joined by the violins. The melody has a lot of forward momentum, and grows in intensity until it develops into a swirling passage, before dropping back to a state of sparsity. This is a tremendous section, with great contrasts in feeling, reminiscent of the opening. The end is a false one; as it leads straight into the next movement, it begins to take flight.

Out of this feeling comes the final movement, which commences with a busy, excited passage. This energised section gives way to a punchy, multi-instrument sound. Rhythmic interjections litter the passage and eventually lead to a drop in intensity. A melancholia returns and the violins resume their seats as they produce slow, sustained lines with a viola pizzicato adding to the mood and taking us to the end of the quartet.

Johan Kvandal wrote his SQ No.3 in 1983; it also contains four movements. The opening, marked andante, is very orchestral, in a melancholy manner. The four instruments are as one in the opening passage before a violin asks probing questions of the ensemble, which answer in kind. A brief solo violin lament breaks into a strong passage, the violin being quite aggressive. A solo cello line drops the intensity and a folk-like mood ensues. This does not last, and the feeling intensifies with the first violin showing the way. Now we have a pastoral section as the violins explore new melodies. This eventually gives way to some drama, which further leads to a brief, quiet moment before the movement finishes with a flourish.

The next movement, marked adagio, is very gentle with a lone violin lamenting over a melancholic ensemble. Slowly, the cello adds support, through soft, plucked notes. A new mood is fashioned and some forward movement can be felt. Slightly spirited melodies begin to form, only to recede back into melancholy. This whole movement is a feature for the first violin as it leads the movement through many sombre passages. As the end approaches, the violin descends into a low register and is absorbed back into the ensemble, where it stays until the conclusion. This is a very fine movement.

The third, short movement, opens in a frisky manner and investigates some wonderful harmonised melodic lines that are slightly folksy. A short pizzicato section leads to a final violin phrase to finish.

The last movement opens in a serious manner, and is very sparse. However, after a time, the violins take flight, in a similar manner to the previous movement. There are lots of solo violin moments, combined with sections of ensemble accompaniment, which seem to chase the violin. A dynamic passage leads to a strong conclusion.

These are two fine quartets, as are the other pieces on the CD. The Valen is similar to the above quartets, while the Janson, a one-movement work, investigates several different moods.

The review CD, Norwegian 20th Century String Quartets, on Naxos, and performed by the Oslo Quartet is available at Amazon US and UK. It is also on Spotify and YouTubeearsense features works for all composers individually, so you will have to search for them.

Listenability: Charming, melodic works with great slow movements.


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