OLE SCHMIDT – The First and the Last Quartets

Danish Contemporary composer Ole Schmidt [1928–2010] wrote seven string quartets. I have selected the First, from 1954, which is in one movement and the Seventh, from 2002 which contains three named movements, for discussion. The progression of these seven quartets reveals an interesting, increasing sense of modernity.

I always feel a certain sense of anticipation and excitement at listening to the first quartet of a composer that I’ve not heard before. Such is the case here as this work opens in a mysteriously ambivalent mood and I‘m not sure how it is going to unfold. Violins express simple, but seemingly conservative lines in a light manner. A brief pause gives the first indicator to the composer’s ultimate intentions as the violins’ forays become tonally uncertain, with dissonance appearing. Now an assertive violin sets up a tempo with abstract phrases, which are interrupted by cello musings. A slight section of pizzicato strumming leads to a diminishing dynamic but not intensity, with glissandi in evidence. The cello dominates and the violins are furtive, creating a fascinating soundscape. The music then moves into a sparse passage with all instruments in a dialogue that rapidly becomes chaotic. The cello rumbles vigorously and a pizzicato can be heard, together with several violin flourishes.

A section of extremely powerful harmonised ensemble phrases spawns another period of chaos. The music maintains an intensely rhythmic nature for a time before another chaotic section emerges. A brief pause leads to a dominant cello with a deep quivering of multiple bows, slowly moving into more glissandi and pizzicato interjections. A solo violin line emerges out of this but the entropic mood soon resumes, again rhythmically powerful.

Now a new feeling is presented as one violin expresses a lament over a distant aura of quivering strings – this is a wonderful sound. The ensemble slowly joins the first violin and develops a sense of that ambivalence heard earlier in the work. This is not a common trait for the composer. A flourish leads to another solo violin musing, with little ensemble input, save for a few pizzicato strokes. A lonely phrase is picked up by another instrument, which continues on its own. Soft string tones then appear and while remaining soft, they build to what I would term an emotional crescendo, as they reach out towards a satisfying chord. This mood continues until a not-so-brief pause leads into a return to the opening, but after that which we have experienced, it generates a different feeling, which eventually resolves to a rather tame conclusion.

The Seventh Quartet, as mentioned, contains three named movements – these all take the form of dedications to girls’ or women’s names. Being the last quartet, I would normally expect it to be quite intense, but, given that they are dedications it will be interesting to see how they unfold.

To Lizzie begins with a searing solo violin line with occasional ensemble interjections. I already have an appreciation as to the dedications, as this is a very modern opening. The solo violin returns briefly and there is a sense of atonality as the ensemble becomes involved. The music is rhythmically conservative and it leads into a beautifully harmonised violin line which I wouldn’t have expected from a piece written in 2002. More of these harmonised lines occur, mostly in a rubato feeling, interspersed with sweeping phrases from all instruments. The first violin mostly predominates, with the ensemble constantly returning to provide sections of Ives-like harmonised lines. The end is quite striking.

To Henriette again features those strangely harmonised melodic lines, but this time the mood is gentle, although occasionally interrupted by powerful cello statements. A return to the gentle feeling is brief and the cello continues to interject. This leads to an unusual texture, it’s as if two streams of music are existing together, evoking a magical feeling. With the cello returning to a supportive role, the music is for me, quite profound, as it fades to a conclusion.

To Tine is brief and opens with an energy not heard so far in the piece. Strutting, dissonant melodic lines are relentless, leading to a most serious mood. The end is a powerful pizzicato pop.

As to the composer holding back for the dedications, it didn’t happen. These are three powerful sketches.

The review CD, titled Volume.1 – String Quartets Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 7, performed by the Kontra Quartet on the Marco Polo label is available on Amazon UK as a CD and Amazon US and Presto Classical as a download. There was also a Volume 2 to complete the set but I was unable to find it except as a download from Presto Classical. I highly recommend both sets.

Volumes 1 and 2 are on Spotify and most of the seven quartets can be found on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Fascinating modern, non-confronting works.


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