American Contemporary composer William Zinn [born 1924] wrote at least one string quartet. As well as String Quartet No. 1, from 1966, there are two single movement works on the review CD. Zinn’s music is heavily influenced by Jewish culture and I have decided to discuss the two single movement works – both pieces have a link to the Holocaust.
Elie Wiesel – A Portrait – A low, resonant cello introduces this work with a brief statement, followed by a solo, distant violin, expressing a modal melodic line in the middle register. A response by a stronger violin leads to another instance of the first phrase. The first violin begins another distant melody and the second violin falls in behind it. Now a solo cello expresses a longer passage, until the violins return. The piece continues in the same vein for a while, before the solo cello returns briefly and leads the ensemble into a folk-like melody and tempo. Cascading violins thrive in this rhythmic passage, with obviously Jewish-inspired modal lines. Again the solo cello has a short solo passage before leading back into a tempo – melodically, it is as important as the violins. The solo violin returns and a measured ensemble paints a haunting, melodic soundscape. Overlapping melodic lines evoke great feeling and the mood oscillates between a dance-like tempo and solo or harmonised melodic statements. There is a great sense of drama as the cello and violins dig into their work. The opening cello and violin statements are constantly repeated, always leading into a dance-like tempo. Nearing the end, a shrill solo violin and then solo cello reappear, possibly for the last time as the violin follows the cello. More drama is presented, albeit briefly, and a violin duet is joined by the cello. This leads into a short ensemble passage and a considered, consonant solo violin end.
Kol Nidre Memorial – This piece, which is based on the theme of the Jewish Kol Nidre prayer, begins with a stunning violin duet, again modal, as the ensemble lays down a peaceful harmonic background. Out of this steps a wonderfully pure, aching solo violin line which makes time stand still. Now harmonised lines featuring cello and the two violins are very powerful. The solo violin returns and responds to a moving cello statement, leading to a powerful ensemble section. Again, the dynamics are minimal and two violins dialogue before another sweeping solo violin line gives way to ensemble musings. A passage of solo violin, supported by a quivering bow and cello follows. The music is similar to the first piece, in that different feelings are re-presented over the duration. A cello leads into a pulsing section and further strong, harmonised but still modal, melodic lines. Now gathering strength, the ensemble is majestic for a time, before dropping back to the sparsity of two violins. Modal harmony abounds in the louder passages, while Western harmony is present in the quieter moments. The work concludes on one such moment.
These are inherently spiritual works, sometimes akin to John Tavener or Arvo Pärt, perhaps even more powerful at times – not necessarily spiritually, but dynamically.
The review CD is titled William Zinn – Works for String Quartet, on the Nimbus label and is performed by the Wihan Quartet.
Listenability: Powerful, moving spiritual works with a Jewish flavour.