South African-British Early Modern composer Ivy Priaulx Rainier [1903–1986] wrote one string quartet, in 1939. There is also apparently a ‘lost’ early work from 1922 which has been performed but not recorded. Quoting from her Wikipedia page:
Although she lived most of her life in England and died in France, her compositional style was strongly influenced by the African music remembered from her childhood. She never adopted 12-tone or serial techniques, but her music shows a profound understanding of that musical language.
Surely, an interesting state of musical affairs.
The work, which is in four movements opens with a brief section of a lumbering cello motif, which is then harmonised by the viola. It is over before it starts and the music moves into a strong, descending chordal texture. A pause this time brings a throbbing solo cello, sounding quite African. One iteration of the opening motif again brings in the descending chords. A passage is then set up where one instrument plays the motif, followed by another sequence of chords. The music seems to be built around this motif as it constantly recurs, its presence giving the music a sense of mystery, and not a little tension.
Now the motif disappears, revealing a series of ominous violin lines that rise from the serious to the positively frantic. A return of the motif leads to some strong chordal interjections, which joust in an unrestrained manner. As the end approaches, the mood is built around the throbbing cello with the descending chords quite beguiling – a mellifluous section that has a feeling all of its own. The final passage is a wonderful sustained chord.
The brief second movement opens with pizzicato establishing a rhythmic presence, which is tonally ambivalent leading to a short dissonant passage. When the tonality settles, some positive melodies are heard. A violin duet is again frantic for a time before the introduction is revisited, with the dissonance again apparent. A strange flourish leads to a finish. Both of these movements have an African nature, with a strong sense of modality about them.
The next movement, marked andante, features long, powerfully persuasive melodies, mostly made up of violin duets with the cello offering sporadic harmonic support. These melodies are stark and solo cello musings add great depth to the texture. This is modern music, definitely in the classical tradition. Leaving the rhythms far behind, the violins first take on a 19th century Romantic sound and then ascend into the sky, to end.
The final movement starts with rhythmically incisive chords, before an ostinato sets up a background for further interjections and melodic sweeps. Now the tempo slows, moving into a short section of peace, which is soon interrupted by pizzicato effects. A tempo is again established and various melodic flurries are at work here. Glissandos bring a touch of abstraction before another ostinato forms, which the violins peck at, bird-like. A rise in intensity has frantic violin lines scurrying to a conclusion.
This is very interesting music for 1939 – it certainly doesn’t fit any of the boxes into which I sometimes put music.
The review CD, not obviously titled also contains Michael Tippet’s Second Quartet and is on the SWR label, the performers being the Amadeus Quartet. I suspect that the Rainier quartet is recorded live as there is a constant background rumble.
The CD is available at Amazon US but only as an MP3 download on Amazon UK. However there is another CD, titled Vive la Difference: String Quartets by Women Composers, which also contains the work, at Amazon UK.
Listenability: Something different from 1939.