R MURRAY SCHAFER – String Quartet No. 4

Canadian Modern Contemporary composer Raymond Murray Schafer [born 1933], has written at least 12 string quartets. These span a time period of more than 30 years, and the composer covers a vast musical territory within these works. They have been unavailable for a while, but I just noticed them on Amazon again. I am going to discuss String Quartet No. 4, written in 1986, which is in one movement, as are the majority of his quartets.

The Fourth Quartet commences with a sustained dissonant chord, until a violin expresses a melodic line. The music soon settles into a drone and a violin in the high register makes for a remarkable mood. The drone subsides and now the ensemble dialogues underneath the first violin. The violin goes solo again and after some very shrill melodies expresses a remarkable descending phrase that seems to cover the whole range of the instrument. This is a cue for a brief period of dissonance to return. The violin goes solo again, with occasional cello throbs in the background.

The music is all about the violin before the ensemble fashions a hectic chaos, while the violin returns to the lower register. It soon resumes its former shrill level and the ensemble responds with aggressive, rhythmic phrases. The violin constantly varies its register. A pizzicato passage leads to a moderation of the mood, but it doesn’t last. Dissonant thrusts are now the focus, and a rhythmic passage allows the violin to dominate again. A chord change intensifies the feeling, but it soon drops away; reverting to the former thrusts. A hint of pizzicato softens the proceedings.

Thus far, the piece has been all about contrasts. It seems a case of so much music, so little time. A dissonant section of glissando leads to the first peaceful moment in the work. Quiet, pensive chords carry this mood, which is other-worldly. More glissandos lead back to a prominent violin, in the highest register. A solo cello phrase is heard and we almost have a stasis. Now the energy returns, with dissonance and excited violin melodies. The solo violin returns and ascends into its highest register.

At this moment a soprano voice enters; it is also very shrill. The wordless vocal and the violin combine for a magnificent soundscape. After a time, the violin is left on its own, and leads to a conclusion in its highest register.

The soprano voice is that of Marie-Danielle Parent; she also appears on one other work on the review CD. Speaking of which, all of the 12 string quartets are available as two 2-CD sets, performed by a Canadian Ensemble, Quatuor Molinari. They can be found on Amazon UK and US.

These sets are both on Spotify, together with a performance of the early works by the Orford Quartet, which appears to be no longer available. There are many quartets by both ensembles, including No. 4 on earsense and YouTube.

Just a point about the Orford, some of the music is so soft as to be inaudible; the levels are quite drastic on the Molinari as well. It certainly makes for difficult listening.

Listenability: Some dissonance, but ultimately very rewarding.


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