Russian Contemporary composer Vladimir Ivanovich Martynov [born 1946], has written at least three string quartets, or works named as such. I believe his early music was in a modern, confrontational style, but after having spent time in a Spiritual Academy to study traditional Russian Orthodox chant, his works seem to have taken on a more spiritual nature.

I regard Der Abschied (The Farewell) composed in 2006, as an essentially spiritually inspired work. Apparently it quotes from some of Mahler’s lieder, but as I never got past his symphonies, I don’t go there, so I can’t comment on that. Reading the CD liner notes may give listeners some insights into the composer’s rationale on music – a marvellous essay can be found there.

This work opens in an ambient manner, and the sense of space created is continued, in various guises, throughout the whole work. Gentle repeated chords are the first sounds heard. After three or four well-spaced repeats, a slow tempo ensues with similar chords being constantly harmonised. There is no melody but the changes of harmonic structure within the chords create interest. To me, this section, which is sustained for some time, is a little like Morton Feldman and forms the basic framework for the whole piece. Eventually a solo cello is heard, in the same rhythmic manner, that is, playing one note with a constant pulse until the ensemble returns to continue the ever changing chords, and maintaining the strict rhythmic structure. Now a violin goes solo, similar to the previous cello interlude, however, it changes register and leads to a lamenting moment. After a brief pause the ensemble again enters, this time with a change in approach. A measured rhapsodic feeling is heard as all instruments contribute a diverse range of sounds – this is a quite beguiling episode. A return to the previously dominant pulsing chord approach settles in, seemingly for the long haul.

Once more, the harmonic changes sustain interest. After a time, and following a brief pause, an ensemble motif is repeated with a long pause between each occurrence. This again leads to another fine rhapsodic passage, which is cut short and the sustained pulsing chords are resumed. These sections are normally prolonged for minutes and this is the case here. Another pause leads to a return of a melodic passage, which is very beautiful with the blend of individual voices rather wonderful. This time the section is extended and a most attractive soundscape ensues. The dynamics increase until the ubiquitous pulsing chords return, again for an extended period. A paring down of the ensemble and another pause brings a hint of a melodic motif, repeated twice before moving back into a more traditional form with sweeping romantic melodies, this time with a gentle ostinato in the background. The violins soar in a most emotionally expressive manner, with long descending ecstatic phrases being a feature of this extended passage. One particularly passionate violin line is heard many times, to great effect.

Now a new mood is created, with a combination of the basic chordal pulse overlaid with the previously mentioned violin line, leading to a return of the rhapsody for a brief period, before the pulse returns, again with the overlaid violin line. A solo violin, in its shrill register, muses for a time until a solo cello takes on the character of the pulsing chord feeling – by way of contrast, it descends into its lowest register and is deeply resonant. Another substantial pause is followed by an almost inaudible shrill violin which leads the ensemble back into a melodic phase, filled with emotional warmth. A period of sustained chords brings with it a total sense of calm – this time without the previous pulsing.

Another melodic violin section, with occasional chordal interjections, proceeds into an extraordinary lilting violin passage with further sustained chords. This gentle feeling is continued over an alternating two-chord harmonic structure until a strange chord breaks the mood and an extended pause ensues. The two-chord pattern is again heard in a very elegant moment before a pause leads straight back into the preceding section. This occurs several times, with the strange chord constantly being the catalyst for change. Nearing the end, there seems to be more pauses than music, and that strange chord followed by another sustained chord is played twice to conclude the piece.

I considered assigning letters to the sections, allowing me to be able to say that it was in an AABACAACB format – I made that up but I hope you get my meaning. The work is a series of constantly recurring sections, although there are subtle differences in the flow between them at times. It is also worth mentioning that the work runs for just under forty minutes, so some of these sections are heard for long periods. It is essentially an introspective soundscape, evoking an almost meditative nature.

There are two other works on the review CD. One is The Beatitudes, a six minute work that has a melodic, pastoral feeling in a major tonality, which despite being a fine piece, to me didn’t evoke the biblical passage, commonly known as The Sermon on the Mount – maybe it wasn’t meant to.

The other work is a reconstructed version of the two completed movements of an unfinished string quintet by Schubert. A bonus here is that the quartet is augmented by former Kronos cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who left the quartet in 1999. Even after reading the composer’s CD liner notes, I didn’t find this piece very stimulating. The first movement seems very stilted, only the second movement worked for me. It seemed to be a nod to populism – but that is just an opinion.

Having said that, the Kronos Quartet have also headed down a path that hasn’t resonated with me. I am not drawn to their world music collaborations. It was rewarding to come across this 2102 CD, which is classical music. However, their current approach has seen them maintain their economic viability.

The review CD is titled Music of Vladimir Martynov performed by Kronos Quartet on the Nonesuch label. It is available an Amazon US and UK.

The album can be heard on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: A very spiritual, calming piece of music.


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