Swiss composer Paul Müller-Zürich [1898-1993] appears to have written two string quartets, but there may be some dissension about this. More on that later… I am going to discuss what I believe is his First Quartet, Opus 4 in E-flat Major, from 1921.
The work commences with a spirited sense of open spaces and forward movement. This is helped by what I believe is a touch of reverb, but it could just be the attack on the strings. In any event, the feeling doesn’t last, moving into a moment of a minor tonality before moving forward again. There are superb melodies, and a constantly changing texture. One particular violin phrase is very fetching and is developed at length by several voices. Following one pizzicato stroke, and a brief pause, the violin establishes a more temperate mood which isn’t allowed to settle as the ensemble move forward again. A strong passage paradoxically leads to the softest music heard thus far. The mood is tense, but with the lowered dynamics, it allows the ensemble to rise again with engaging flourishes. Now the cello expresses a simple melodic phrase which is taken up by the other instruments in turn, and developed into a substantial section, constantly referring back to the phrase – this is a masterful piece of writing. After quite a time, a new feeling is developed, slightly lamenting and slowly ascending, leading into a short flourish to finish.
The next movement, marked allegro appassionato, features a strange opening as several different rhythms and harmonic patterns are investigated, almost in a random manner. This succession of moods carries on through the entire movement. There is some freewheeling violin lines that are not particularly supported by the ensemble, which has its own story to tell, with strong assertions. At one point, an agreement seems to have been reached, bringing a relaxed mood. Of cause this doesn’t last and somber violin lines move inevitably towards a faded end.
The third, adagio movement, enters in a subtle manner, with a richly toned violin in a duet with another. A somber mood is sustained until the melodies become more expansive and even optimistic. This prolonged section finally introduces the other voices and a tension unfolds. Now another somber mood is created by a pulsing cello and two sparse violin melodies of considerable emotional expression. The music positively aches as the violins limp towards just one voice for a quiet conclusion.
The final movement is filled with a lilting energy from the start and the violins craft playful melodies. A somewhat rhapsodic passage, which is not really contextual, leads into a brief iteration of the opening material. At this point, the tempo recedes and the violins harmonise another somber melody. This is mere filler however, and the opening feeling is re-examined at some length. Now long, sustained tones produce a new feeling, played rubato. One violin rises out of this, in a most attractive manner, before it is overwhelmed by the ensemble. Now, the tempo is increased and a virtuoso violin regathers the energy of the movement, before leading it into a brief final flourish.
This is a fascinating, refreshing work from a time when the string quartet repertoire was undergoing serious change. I love works that sit on the cusp of two styles and I find the piece to be more advanced than a Romantic work, but showing no signs of any contemporaneous influences. The review CD is complemented with a String Quintet from 1919 and a String Trio from 1951. My research revealed a Second Quartet, from 1960 – quite a gap really.
There is a little confusion regarding the quintet, which is listed as a quartet on Spotify and YouTube, both of whom were supplied by Naxos. The CD cover refers to a quintet and also lists a supplementary violist – that is evidence enough for me. Hearing the introduction to the work confirms it.
This disc, titled Muller-Zurich: Casalquartet, performed by the Casal Quartett, on the Solo Musica label is available on Amazon UK but only as an MP3 download from Amazon US. That may be because it appears to be a relatively new release.
Listenability: Wonderful, melodic and rhythmically interesting quartet.