RUED LANGGAARD – String Quartet No. 5

Danish composer Rued Langgaard [1893–1952] wrote nine string quartets, although only six of them are numbered. I reviewed Nos. 2 & 3, performed by the Kontra Quartet, in October 2016 on a 2-CD set, but at the time, I wasn’t aware of the further works. When the Danish Nightingale Quartet released three individual CDs of the complete quartets, I thought it was time to revisit them. I have selected the Fifth Quartet for its emphasis on basically slow tempos. Composed in 1925, it was revised in 1926-38, with the fourth movement being a reworked version of String Quartet No. 1, fourth movement.

The first movement is marked Andante Quasi Andantino Misterioso, which I take to mean moderately, in a mysterious manner. A cello is the first instrument heard, but slowly an ensemble chord unfolds. Once completed, a stately, richly harmonised section unfolds. To me it evokes early to middle Beethoven, or possibly Dvorak. An increase in tempo has a sparkling violin express briefly before a Classical sound is heard – this is optimistic music with sweeping lines over a sparse accompaniment. The timbre of the ensemble is magnificent and the cello leads the music into a swaying, folk-like section.

A questioning phrase is answered and a brief pause leads into a strong harmonised motif, which was heard earlier. At times the music threatens to break into a tempo, but it is never fulfilled. Again the cello leads into a further stately passage. Another tinge of Beethoven is warmly executed and moves into a violin flourish. The recurring motif resurfaces, this time with a subtle difference in the harmonies. The progress to the end is stately, with further Classical feeling. I believe that the composer markings could have been simply been stated andante, as I didn’t notice any mystery, especially for 1925, or 1938 for that matter.

A new movement, marked scherzo grazioso (graceful, smooth or elegant), all qualities which have been heard in the previous movement, and particularly apply to this opening. The movement is built around subtle motifs, and the use of a distinctive interval which was also used in the previous movement. It seems to sound more mysterious here. This is some of the gentlest music that I have heard in a while. Now we have a stronger, melodic passage that brings about a shrill violin ending.

The next movement is marked lento misterioso, and is a languorous stroll at a very slow tempo. The harmonies are rich underneath the sweetest of violin melodies. This section evokes Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll for me, but with pared-down forces. The next sound heard is one tempestuous melodic phrase, which immediately returns to the previously placid nature. Again, I do not notice any mystery here and the music goes out on three sustained chords, the last of which features a slight violin flourish.

The final movement, marked lento – allegro quasi andantino opens with a sustained chord moving into a mostly chordal section, until the first violin breaks ranks and expresses over some wonderful harmonies. The music suddenly breaks free, but the moment is brief and a further Classical sounding passage is sweet to the taste. Now the music scampers with overlapping lines pulsing forward into another strong chordal section. A solo violin then leads the ensemble in a controlled manner- in fact I would describe this whole work as controlled. There is constant movement, but it is not usually allowed to develop, constantly returning to its gentle nature. Nearing the end a flurry of activity leads into a strong conclusion.

This is wonderful music, with not even a dash of modernism at any time. The Early Modern influences that were very prevalent at this time are never used by the composer. I just re-read my 2016 review and noticed that the earlier quartets seemed to be more vigorous in nature. Also, it seems that I did know of the Nightingale Quartet’s recording at that time. Having listened to them recently, they have a sense of great beauty and superb playing. Apparently, these were quite successful recordings.

They can still be had as three individual CDs, with No. 5 being on Volume 3. They can also be found as a 3-CD set on the Da Capo label on Amazon US and UK.

Both the Kontra and Nightingale versions are on Spotify and YouTube. All of the Nightingale quartets are on earsense.

Listenability: Brilliant Late Romantic works from the early twentieth century.


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