American female Contemporary composer Tamar Diesendruck [born 1946] has written three string quartets. From what I can gather, only the first two have been recorded. They are both on a single CD. I am going to discuss the Second Quartet, titled Babel Dreams, which is in two movements.

The first movement of the work contains three, quite different sections. Seemingly random, almost stuttering phrases create an opening structure that is mostly based on sparse violin assertions, with unusual, not particularly musical sounds coming from the ensemble. There are several pauses in this section. Now a violin plays long tones, again separated by pauses – this eventually moves back into the opening feeling. A harmonised violin line is heard and it is sustained for a time on the second iteration. Some double-stops on a violin gives the music a slightly folksy fiddle sound. The sustained violin now returns, with further scurrying mutterings from the ensemble. A delicate rhythmic motif is generated and a violin expresses harmoniously – this is the first hint of a melody heard thus far. The string sound effects are less prominent here and the piece edges forward, albeit in a stilted manner. An abrupt stop leads to some muted cello utterings, alternating with further scurrying passages. The cello is harmonised now, possibly with double-stops, and a four note motif is heard for some time. I wouldn’t call it a recapitulation, but the opening feeling is presented again. Nearing the end, a marvellous, harmonised cello passage is heard. The sound of its deep register is a fitting finish.

The final movement opens with a shrill, but subtle, almost whimpering violin, together with the inevitable string sound effects. A slight use of glissando adds a smearing nature to the moment. The violin still sounds uncomfortable and its note selection, together with some glissandi, make for a powerful mood. The second violin joins in, forming an alluring duet, which gradually becomes more expansive, as the violin tones are held for longer, creating a new mood. The simplicity of this passage is profound, filled with great, spiritual peace. The cello adds to the feeling and the violin melodies are superb here – evoking the work of Arvo Pärt. Now all four voices combine in a heavenly manner – this is music of angels. I marvel at the fact that the simplest of material can lead to such profound feeling. The intensity gently increases only to return to a few fleeting pizzicato strokes. Instantly the beauty returns, and there is an ambivalent passage where angels meet string sound effects, as the violins are still marvellous. A long, sustained harmonised tone concludes the work.

This is music of constant movement and development – I found it to be a fine journey. The First Quartet is similar in that it contains many changes of mood. It is slightly more modern than the Second but totally non-confronting. I look forward to tracking down the Third Quartet…

The review CD, String Quartets 1-2, performed by The Pro Arte Quartet on the Centaur label is available on Amazon US and UK.

The CD is on Spotify and both quartets are on earsense  and YouTube.

Listenability: Charming, sometimes incisive, Contemporary Quartets.


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