ROLAND LEISTNER-MAYER – String Quartet No. 5

Czech-born Modern Contemporary composer Roland Leistner-Mayer [born 1945] has written at least seven string quartets. After studying in Germany and residing there, he is now considered to be a German composer. He just happens to be the only composer I have ever encountered that happens to share my birthday, February 20th. I intend to discuss his Fifth Quartet.

The first movement is of truly epic proportions, variously in length, emotional scope and dynamic range. It opens with a very full sound – a flurry of quivering violins, evoking bats emerging into the night. This soon moves into a chordal, melodic passage, all the while constantly referring back to the fluttering sound. Now a violin emerges, leading to a more measured ensemble texture. A loud flourish, more powerful than the opening brings forward strong, if somewhat random melodies. Solo cello engages in a dialogue with the violins, eventually leading into another display of power, which slowly dissipates into a conversational section with further strong melodies. A brief pause brings a hint of the opening feeling, in a very controlled manner, with the quivering constantly varying in intensity – this is some powerful music. I should also mention that it is a very long movement.

A return to the dynamic flourish is heard and the violins become insistent in their expression. The cello and violin dialogue again before leading back into the previous dynamic. After an extended period of intensity, the opening mood is resumed and with it, some sense of peace. Sombre violin melodic lines intertwine with solo cello statements for a time but another rise in dynamics follows. A rhythmic pattern is heard, with all instruments contributing – the music often sounds like more than four instruments. A swirling, giddying moment leads to the end.

The second movement begins with a strong ostinato feeling, a little unusual in that various different motifs contribute to the effect. Violin statements seem to be constantly interrupted by these ostinato motifs. A dramatic change features a pizzicato section, which is relatively conservative. Out of this a violin melody is heard, and after a brief pause, a solid wall of sound is heard with dramatic violin statements prominent. This turgid passage develops through several mood changes and concludes on a powerful ensemble chord.

The next movement begins on a series of rhythmic chords, before a violin rises out of the ensemble and is joined by the second violin. This leads to a diminution of the intensity with less voices available to carry the chordal rhythm, which is now pushed into the background as the violins dominate. A terse atmosphere unfolds, with a sense of mystery as the violins temper their attack and are absorbed back into the ensemble. Melodic arpeggios prevail for a time, then the ensemble strengthens, only to release the tension, allowing the violins to step forward. A short period of sparsity leads to a dense passage of aggressive violin lines – this slowly moderates and there is a conversation unfolding – the sense of mystery has returned. This feeling is sustained to a gentle end.

The final movement features a solo violin, eventually joined by the other instruments, one at a time. When this mood has fully developed, it is one of abstraction, with the violins being particularly busy. With a drop in dynamics, a pizzicato cello walks, jazz style, for a time until the violins overwhelm it with a feeling of chaos. A peaceful section gives way to further dramatic violin lines, with a sense of urgency, slowly moving into a very powerful section. The work concludes on a dynamic rhythmic flourish, followed by a final pizzicato chord.

This is a quartet with moments of great intensity, interspersed with some reflective, albeit atonal passages. I was drawn to its strength.

The review CD Leistner-Mayer: String Quartets 5-6-7, performed by the Sojka Quartet is available on Amazon US and UK.

This disc can be sampled on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Very powerful, non-confrontational quartet.

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