British mid-20th century composer Robert Still [1910–1971] wrote four string quartets. The First was from 1948, the rest are not dated. What is known is that Still, coincidentally, like Schoenberg, gave his Third and Fourth Quartets no key signature, resulting in a shift in approach from composing strictly tonal works before introducing intense dissonance into his music. This change is easily observed when listening to these four quartets. I am going to discuss the Fourth Quartet, in four movements, which gives full expression to his mature approach.
The opening features a strong pizzicato cello with various violin incursions, in a vigorous manner. The attack by the bow on the cello, which is now played arco, is quite profound. Dissonant harmonised lines are heard, still with a strong cello presence until the opening feeling is resumed, complete with a solo cello passage. String sound effects appear and the mood sits firmly in its composer marking of allegro – agitato (agitated). Dynamic passages contrast with lighter moments, including harmonious duets with two violins. The music traverses these contrasts freely and the end, which follows a mini-crescendo, is quite a surprise.
The next movement, marked poco lento, which sounds promising, commences with a succession of lamenting, held tones, leading to a wonderful soundscape. After a time the cello and viola move in to join the mood. The harmonies are dissonant but presented in a beautiful way, expressing a feeling that I haven’t heard for some time. A lift in intensity leads to some pulsing, with disturbing rhythmic thrusts before revisiting the opening peace. The music sings as each instrument reaches out with gentle tones, harmonised in an abstruse manner. I could listen to this bemoaning sound all day… but for a solo cello voice that fades out.
The third movement opens with an almost swinging tempo, although the cello remains in arco, occasionally dropping into pizzicato. Halfway through, the tempo gives way to another section of strange, static harmonies, only to continue with what is a rather convoluted feeling. The ending turns out to be a race to the line, and a single violin flourish.
The final movement is similar in feeling to the second. This time the music is more structured as a violin plays short, questioning, morose phrases which are repeated by the second violin in an answering fashion. The violins slowly drift apart and the cello enters with a plangent tone, underpinning this strange melodic passage which again, would bear repeated listening for me. Now the two violins start all over again – but this time the ensemble come in strongly before the intensity again drops back to some of its original questions. A rhythmic flurry is brief and this introspective soundscape again edges forward. In hindsight, the opening melodic line has been revisited many times – I must admit it is a beautiful phrase. The conclusion is as subtle as leaves falling on a gentle breeze.
I am drawn to atonal music, especially when it produces the kind of beauty created by these two slow movements. The Third Quartet is also very interesting, in an abstract manner, and contains another alluring slow movement. The first two quartets are a world away – I think I could cast them as having a Late Romantic sound.
The review CD, Robert Still: The Four String Quartets, is performed by the Villiers Quartet on the Naxos label. It is freely available from Amazon US and UK.
It can be found on Spotify.
Listenability: A chronicle of a composer’s art – there is some marvellous music here.