VENIAMIN BASNER – The Third String Quartet

Russian Modern composer Veniamin Efimovich Basner [1925–1996] wrote five string quartets, from 1948 to 1975. During that time, there is an obvious development of style. The first two quartets are conservative, while the last two are markedly more modern, with the Third being somewhat of a bridging work, alluding to both the former and the latter. Interestingly, Basner is the second composer I have come across who has an asteroid named after him – Asteroid 4267 Basner, which was discovered in 1971 – thanks, Wiki. Vincent d’Indy was also accorded this honour.

Basner, was a pupil, then an associate of Dmitri Shostakovich and I believe I can detect the Early Modern influence of Shostakovich in Basner’s string quartets.

The Third Quartet, from 1960 is in two movements, designated as Part 1 and Part 2. The work opens in a lyrical manner, with violin melodies being supported by luxuriant strings. The texture is sparse but the feeling very satisfying. Out of this arises a plaintive violin leading into a very subtle tempo, with cello notes occasionally heard. Now the second violin joins the first, creating a sublime duet. A pause leads to a pizzicato section, quite disjointed with the cello and viola being prominent. Gradually the violins join in and move into a chaotic passage with a good deal of abstraction, before the lamenting nature returns with the cello and a violin in conversation. The violin then goes solo, with only sporadic notes from the cello to be heard. As the other instruments rejoin the music, the cello plays rich, sustained, arco tones and there is a hint of pizzicato.

A substantial pause leads to a rhythmic passage featuring a prancing violin duet, with pizzicato accompaniment, together with a strong cello presence. The violin sound changes, becoming Gypsy-like and a virtuosic violin brings on a strongly rhythmic chordal passage with quite dramatic changes in dynamics. The music simply pulsates, and is becoming quite disjointed. A further pause ensues, this time the mood softens and the violin and cello again predominate. A return to the rhythm and the busy violin is not so striking this time, in fact a certain sense of peace is present. Nearing the end, the cello expresses powerfully and the music just stops.

Part 2 begins with a morose mood, as a solo violin laments with much beauty. The cello offers up occasional lines, but they are rare. The solo violin persists for some time slowly becoming more forceful, leading to further appearances from the cello. I believe this music displays the transition from the composer’s early style to the Modern. Thus far the solo violin has been the predominant feature, this time featuring a searing lament. The cello supplies lonely musings itself until it finally breaks free and dialogues with a violin in a low register, which leads to an unusual texture.

The second violin now becomes involved and another searing, albeit brief, passage ensues. The mood soon returns to the morose, this time with two independent violin lines and an occasional cello interjection. A walking cello line, which outlines harmonic changes accompanies the first violin and, eventually, the second violin returns. The viola can now also be heard, sustaining a shrill note in the background before a mildly chaotic episode unfolds, again brief, leading to a pizzicato based section. The entrance of the viola initiates a hectic passage, with the violins quivering furiously. This mood is taken up by all instruments leading to a degree of tension. A return to a mild pizzicato is only brief and the ensemble gathers forces to project another section of dynamic tension. Apart from the introductory passage, nothing seems to last for long in this movement and there are many changes in texture. The violins become rapturous and project strong melodic lines which cause the music to surge forward. Soon a stasis prevails with sustained cello tones underpinning the mood. As usual, it doesn’t last for long and the music becomes frantic as it concludes with a final flourish.

The review 2-CD set, titled Veniamin Basner – String Quartets by the Taneyev Quartet, on the Manchester subsidiary of the Russian Bomba-Piter label is available on Amazon US. I couldn’t find it anywhere else.

The Taneyev set is on Spotify, and quartets 1, 4 and 5 can be found on earsense with many quartets hidden away on YouTube.

Listenability: Quite a unique style and very enjoyable.


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