American Early Modern composer Randall Thompson [1899–1984] wrote two string quartets. The First, from 1941 is an epic work that features a long, stunning lento movement. Overall however, I found it to be a little laboured. Not so the Second Quartet from 1967, a more conservative work but I was taken with the composer’s attention to detail, which gives it a unique quality.
The Second Quartet begins in a joyous, rhythmic, pastoral manner with the violin playing a wonderful melody in triplets, set against a four-beat pulse. The music is optimistic as it moves forward with great vigour, all the while maintaining a sensitive quality. After several variations, the opening returns with the three on four still prevailing. The end is a simple, quiet melodic statement.
The next movement is stately as the violin muses over a strutting cello. A change into a more rhythmic section is brief and a return to the sound of the opening is heard. Now a variation of great beauty is presented before moving into a harmonised cello-led section. The mood is pensive and sparse. A brief pause introduces a slightly melancholy, but lyrical violin melody over a sparse accompaniment – this is a most moving section. A further pause brings about another joyous passage which ends unexpectedly.
An adagio movement follows which portrays a sense of elegance. Moving from a rubato feeling into a pulse, the violins harmonise sympathetically. A brief pause leads to an increase in the pulse and a more prominent melody. A solo cello passage against the pulse is a wonderful sound, slightly darkened by the minor tonality. A return to the violins leads to several different moods, always involving beautifully harmonised violin lines. This section concludes on a shrill solo violin melodic phrase, again leading to a pause. Now the music is aching and the shrill violin again appears. Nearing the end, a solo violin expresses over a pulsing cello and a sparse accompaniment allows the violin to move into its highest register, with a sustained chord to conclude. This is a brilliant movement – so many alluring moments.
The finale opens in a rhythmic manner, and the cello contributes solo lines before blending back into the ensemble. Now follows a delicate, but prancing violin passage which soon returns to a rhythmic motif and there is a sense of acceleration. A flurry of chordal thrusts leads into a lighter mood, while still retaining the pulse. A distant solo violin section leads into a brief pause and a gentle conclusion.
What can I say? This is a seemingly simple, beautiful work. To me, its appeal lies in the composer’s ability to make every note count, while never straying from the restraint inherent in the work.
The review CD, performed by the New Jefferson Chamber Players on the Citadel label also contains the First Quartet together with the one string quartet of another American Early Modern composer, Howard Hanson, written in 1924. It is in one movement and features some fascinating moments, seemingly more modern than the later Thompson works.
This CD is available on Amazon UK. There is also another disc by the same ensemble which contains both of Thompson’s string quartets with some other works. I haven’t heard this but I presume these are the same recordings.
Listenability: Intrinsically sublime and timeless string quartet.