Czech-American Contemporary composer Tomáš Svoboda [born 1939] has written at least ten string quartets. The First was from 1960, however the Second came over 30 years later, during the period 1995-96.
The work, in three movements, opens in a most unusual manner as an adagio with a solo viola statement. This section is modal, and the melody consists of long tones, with a foreboding effect. The ensemble enter with sparse harmonised lines and the feeling is maintained. An early pause leaves me wondering as to its purpose and the harmonised passage is heard again. This time it builds as the instruments reach higher. The solo viola returns with a series of two-note motifs and the mood is bleak, but magnificent. Now a whole new feeling unfolds with wispy violins skipping lightly over a much softer droning background. Further changes lead to a conversational passage, with the cello particularly expressive as it muses with the violin lines.
The music is now in an allegro tempo and turns quite serious before giving way to a shrill violin and a cello, lurching forward. The two-note motifs heard in the opening are now played out against an intense background with occasional cello pulsings. The intensity increases with agitation and further, this time, five-note motifs that transform into a myriad of possibilities leading to some powerful chordal thrusts of a dissonant nature. The tension reaches breaking point and finally succumbs to reason, drifting into an extended sombre section. That two-note violin returns briefly, leading to a pause. A new section is again modal, with a violin gently dancing across a drone of sustained cello and violin. Thus it ends, in a faded manner.
The next movement consists entirely of an ensemble pizzicato. I hear subtle harmonic changes before a violin offers up intermittent statements. A strangely agitated cello passage leads again to the introduction of a solo violin. This is an extended, lonely moment, followed by a return to the pizzicato accompaniment. If there is any music here, I can’t hear it. Another fade concludes.
The final movement offers up a soft passage of droning strings with shrill glissandi cutting across the mood. This, again, is a lonely sound. The violins are positively mournful, such is the depth of their expression. Bordering on total abstraction, a repeated motif joins the shrill voice for a time. A complete change in mood ensues, with the violins becoming very agitated as a chaos emerges. This extended passage features scything violin lines, which attempt to tear each other to shreds. Eventually the chaos yields but the abstraction is still high as the ensemble lock into another quiet, but chaotic passage. This proceeds into a section of tightly harmonised violin lines against a strong cello background. The end is a harmonised descending phrase.
Even though this music was composed in America I believe I can hear elements of Czech sounds within the music. It is mostly satisfying if you are drawn to these types of abstract, sometimes chaotic soundscapes, as am I. There is much beauty to be found here, together with a measure of chaos.
The review CD, titled String Quartets Vol. 1 – Nos. 1-4, is performed by the Martinu Quartet on the North Pacific Music label. There is also a volume 2 disc containing quartets 5-8. Both are listed as available on Amazon US and UK with the rider on Vol. 1 that they are Temporarily Out of Stock. The CD is still available from the manufacturer at NorthPacificMusic.com
Listenability: Slightly Modern work, not for the faint-hearted.