German Late Romantic composer Walter Braunfels [1882–1954] wrote three string quartets. Strangely, the first was written in 1944 and the third in 1947, all three being composed while Braunfels was well into his sixties. I feel that these pieces do not sit quite into the Late Romantic style – they definitely have a certain twentieth century quality, especially as they progress – so much for labels. I am going to examine the First String Quartet, which is the most conservative.
A violin opens the work with a questioning melodic motif that is quickly taken up by the ensemble. A rapid descending run from the violin leads into an elegant conversational passage, with the cello prominent. Now a bubbling tempo is established and the violins prevail. A solo cello statement invokes a change, which is reminiscent of the opening. Slowly the music becomes tempestuous and a repeat of the earlier descending run adds to the drama. Now the cello drives the accompaniment as the music works through several harmonic changes – the mood is positive with a touch of pizzicato. A new, rhythmic feeling unfolds, slightly serious, leading to an end on a minor chord.
The second, slow movement, begins with a rich layer of chords, and a sombre melody. The violin laments over a sparse background, with interest being provided by the second violin occasionally interjecting a complementary phrase. The low intensity drops even further, bringing a wonderful feeling of sparsity. Now a solo cello passage initiates a new mood with the violin rising in intensity and the ensemble following. This is again, slightly tempestuous, but it doesn’t last. Simple violin melodies intertwine and a measured cello has its say. The sparsity returns with the cello leading the music to a peaceful place, where the violin finishes on a shrill note.
The third movement again commences with a questioning motif which is repeated and developed by the ensemble, at varying tempos. The music eventually settles into a lilting mood, with the questioning motif being passed around among all instruments. This motif has dominated the movement thus far – it’s as if every section alludes to it. An extended solo cello passage develops into a race with the violins really pushing the tempo. The feeling is then moderated and new melodies begin to emerge. A solo cello passage reinvokes the question again and variations continue to be built at various tempos. The mood continues to be positive but, for me, the repeated motif has outstayed its welcome. The cello-violin race is repeated and leads to the end which, you guessed it, is the motif one more time.
The final movement, marked allegro, has a bright quality which is rather attractive. Lyrical violins twist and turn as they pursue each other in a manner similar to children playing. A pause leads to a sense of urgency, and a rise in tempo. The violins develop variations on new melodies, sometimes bordering on the pensive. This extended passage features much interplay with the ensemble and is quite serious until the very end, which has a sense of warmth to it.
The review CD, titled Braunfels: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2, performed by the Auryn Quartet is available from Amazon UK and Presto Classical. It is on Amazon US as a download only.
Listenability: Charming, early twentieth century works.