"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 29, 2015

Best String Quartets, Part 3 (ca. 1900-1925)

Here is the third installment of Best String Quartets, containing quartets from the first two decades and a half of the 20th century. As usual, I mix famous works with little known ones that deserve a larger audience. As you will notice, in that last group there are not a few quartets by promising composers who in the 1930s were chased out of Europe by Nazism (or killed outright). Because of that, many careers were broken. In fact, those careers were broken twice, for after the Second World War a narrow-minded Serialism took music in Europe and America in a sort of Stalinistic grip. Strict Serialists, who fashioned critical opinion from the end of the war through the eighties (and after), counted only Schoenberg, Berg and Webern as their valid predecessors and relegated all other 20th c. music to the garbage heap. In recent decades, there has been a rehabilitation among connoisseurs of these (and other forgotten) composers, but their music is only available in recorded form, and also today almost never played in concerts. Please note that I do not blame Schoenberg, Berg or Webern themselves, but only their all too rigorous and ideological post-war imitators.


1Maurice Ravel, String Quartet in F (1903)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) wrote his single quartet when he was even a few years younger than Debussy - in 1903, dedicating it to his teacher Fauré. It remains one of the most-performed works in the chamber repertoire - a quartet that sings and dances. The quartet opens with a characteristically nostalgic melody (Allegro moderato. Très doux), full of yearning for something unattainable. The second theme is poignantly announced by first violin and viola. The movement is in traditional sonata-form. Then follows a scherzo (Assez vif, très rythmé) of subtle rhythmic complexity - the opening with its plucked strings has been both linked to the Javanese gamelan which Ravel heard in Paris in 1889, or to his Basque heritage. The Trio section contains a slow, wistful theme led by the cello. The rhapsodic and lyrical slow movement (Très lent) offers music of suggestive delicacy and the most melodious sounds. The turbulent and rhythmically asymmetric last movement (Vif et agité) jolts the listeners from any reverie they may have fallen into. It is thematically related to what has gone before and so draws all elements together before ending vigorously.
Recording listened to: Orlando Quartet on Philips (with String Quartet by Debussy).

2.  Karl Weigl, String Quartet No 1 in C Minor Op 20 (1905-06)
The Austrian composer Karl Weigl (1881-1949) was born in Vienna and educated at the University of Vienna and the Conservatory of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. He also studied as a private pupil with Alexander Zemlinsky, who was a family friend. When at university, he befriended his classmate Anton Webern, and this friendship remained, although in later years Weigl never abandoned tonality and did not believe in the twelve tone system. Mahler, then director of the Vienna Court Opera, engaged Weigl as his rehearsal conductor. Weigl also was a diligent composer of symphonies, chamber music and an opera. His music was championed by Mahler, Richard Strauss and Bruno Walter, and he was recognized as one of the foremost Austrian composers, right up until WWII. But when in 1938 the Nazis occupied Austria, the Jewish Weigl was forced to emigrate with his family to the United States, where he plunged immediately into obscurity, and could barely make both ends meet by temporary teaching positions at colleges etc. until his death of an illness in 1948. The Nazi occupation of large parts of Europe swept away what had, up until then, been a prominent European reputation. And after the War things didn't get any better, for under the "dictatorship" of the Serialists, composers like Weigl were seen as conservative and thrown on the garbage heap of history. It is only in recent years that their music has made a small comeback among connoisseurs. Between 1905 and 1949 Karl Weigl wrote eight string quartets. The extraordinary First Quartet is huge, taking almost three quarters of an hour to perform. It shows the young composer at his peak. The four-movement work corresponds to traditional patterns: a sonata-form first movement, filled with pathos; an moving adagio in three parts; a wild scherzo with an extended trio; the only difference with custom is the finale, which is an Andante moderato with a deeply religious mood. A sort of "motto" permeates the whole work and binds it together in cyclical unity. Weigl also employs the technique of permanent variation and development, so that his melodies keep growing organically. The quartet was ahead of its time and had to wait twenty years before finding its first performance by the Kolbe Quartet in Vienna. An outstanding and captivating work.
Recording listened to: Artis Quartett Wien on Nimbus Records (with String Quartet No 5).



3. Carl Nielsen, String Quartet in F Major Op 44 (1906, revised 1919)
Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is usually considered as Denmark's greatest composer. He studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen and for a decade and a half played the second violin in the  Royal Danish Orchestra before in 1916 becoming professor at the Academy of Music. His symphonies, concertos and choral music are now internationally acclaimed, but he also wrote interesting chamber music (such as a beautiful string quintet), among which four string quartets. These all belong to the early and middle parts of his career. The Fourth String Quartet in F major of 1906 initially received a mixed reception, with critics uncertain about what they called its "reserved style." Nielsen therefore revised it several times, publishing his final version in 1919. The quartet is now regarded as his most original and perfect essay in this genre. The first movement was originally called Allegro piacevolo ed indolente (pleasant and indolent), and although this later was changed into a more conventional designation, it in fact hit the nail on the head: the movement is imbued with a feeling of contented indolence (rare in music, so this may have made critics uncertain), positively swaying with pleasant languor. The following slow movement (Adagio con sentimento religioso) is indeed chorale-like, starting with a chaste hymn. The scherzo-like third movement (Allegretto moderato ed innocente) trots along in a relaxed and ironic mood rather than being a boisterous "power scherzo" favored by so many other composers. The finale (Allegro ma non tanto, ma molto scherzando) is lively and lyrical, a lighthearted and festive conclusion rather than a grand peroration. In short, this is a unique and very original string quartet that deserves to be better known.
Recording listened to: Young Danish String Quartet on Dacapo (with Quartet in G Minor and String Quintet).

4. Ernő Dohnányi, String Quartet No 2 in D Flat Major Op 15 (1906)
Ernst von Dohnányi (1877-1960; Ernö Dohnányi in Hungarian) was one of the dominant figures in Hungarian music life in the first half of the 20th c. Dohnányi studied at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, before making his international debut as a pianist in London in 1898 - he was considered as one of the best performers of his day and had a brilliant career. He taught at the Berlin Academy for Music and was conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic and associate director of the Budapest Academy of Music. In these positions he also helped then-lesser-known Hungarian composers as Bartók and Kodály. Although now chiefly known for his Variations on a Nursery Song for piano and orchestra, Dohnányi composed in many genres (including three operas and two symphonies) and wrote very fine chamber music. Brahms himself organized the Vienna premiere of Dohnányi's First Piano Quintet. Dohnányi wrote in a style influenced in the first place by German Classicism (Brahms) rather than late-Romantic chromatism or central European folk music (unlike Bartók or Kodály). Dohnányi wrote three string quartets. The Second Quartet from 1906 is arguably the greatest, post-Brahmsian romantic quartet. It is in three movements. The first movement (Andante-Allegro) begins with a slow introduction in which the striking opening melody sets the passionate tone. This melody will serve as the most important theme of the whole quartet, acquiring an almost biographical role. Not only does it supply material for development in the initial Allegro, it also underpins many an adventurous harmonic move and rises like a question mark over the end of the movement. The blending of different tempi in this movement has an almost Straussian flexibility (when the Allegro starts in earnest with a fast theme, the motto theme is played through it at its original slow tempo, creating an interesting effect). The second movement (Presto acciacato) is a scherzo, starting with a strong drive in the cello. Affinities with the storm at the start of Wagner's Walküre have been pointed out. The Trio, however, brings an exquisite melody of chant-like quality.  The quartet is not concluded by a fast movement, but by a Molto adagio, a sort of apotheosis. Here themes from both earlier movements make up a large proportion of the material, with the motto-like opening motto achieving resolute dominance in an exquisite cadence at the end.
Recording listened to: Lyric Quartet on ASV Digital (with String Quartet No 3).

5. Jean Sibelius, String Quartet in D Minor Op 56 "Voces Intimae" (1909)
Although Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote a fair amount of chamber music in his student years including three string quartets, the five-movement String Quartet in D Minor is the only substantial chamber work he produced in his maturity. Written by the 44-year-old Sibelius, it dates from the period between the Third and Fourth symphonies and like that last symphony, is an introspective work. The subtitle, "Intimate Voices," suggests both the general adage that the string quartet is a conversation between four equal instruments, as well as the particular intimacy of Sibelius' reflections here. The string writing of Sibelius' quartet often has orchestral weight. The five movement work is not a loose suite, but the tightly knit structure forms a sort of arch: the outer movements "bookend" two scherzi (movements two and four) which frame a central slow movement of deep emotional impact, the true intimate core of the quartet. Thematic relationships further knit the various movements into a cohesive unity. The work begins with a few mournful and lonely introductory phrases between first violin and cello, which then provide the material for the first movement (Allegro molto moderato) and as a sort of "melodic cell" indeed for much of the work. The fleetly bouncing scherzo (Vivace) is a fine example of melodic tremolo writing in which the theme is revealed over time so that it only emerges towards the end, a technique which formed a sort of signature for Sibelius. The central Adagio di molto forms the deep center of the work. The lyricism of this movement is punctuated by three muted chords over which Sibelius wrote the words "Voces Intimae," suggesting a cryptic personal reference. The fourth movement (Allegretto) is a kind of rather stern minuet, in dark tonal colors. The feverish finale (Allegro) rushes onward with an irresistible momentum, as a swirling, dizzy dance. A singular masterwork.
Recording listened to: Gabrieli String Quartet on Chandos (with Piano Quintet).

6. Max Reger, String Quartet No 4 Op 109 in E Flat Major (1909)
The German composer Max Reger (1873-1916) was also active as conductor, pianist, organist and academic teacher. After his studies in Munich and Wiesbaden, he became active as conductor and performer, but also composed continually, working at an almost inhuman speed. From 1907 he worked in Leipzig as music director at the university and professor of composition at the conservatory. In 1911 he became Hofkapellmeister at the court in Meiningen. In 1915 he moved to Jena, commuting once a week to teach in Leipzig. He died in May 1916 on one of these trips of a heart attack at age 43, clearly overworked. Reger's music is a bit like his life: busy and complex. Reger composed profusely in various abstract genres, including concertos and symphonic works (but no symphony) and an especially large amount of chamber music as well as works for organ and piano. His work often combines the classical structures of Beethoven and Brahms with the extended harmonies of Liszt and Wagner (thus realizing a fusion between the two opposing schools in 19th c. German music), to which he added the complex counterpoint of Bach. The string quartet made regular appearances throughout Reger's chamber music career. Between 1901 and 1911, Reger wrote five string quartets. His approach to the genre was almost reverential, which resulted in dense, contrapuntal works. The opening movement (Allegro moderato) of the Fourth Quartet from 1909 has been written in strict sonata form. The scherzo (Quasi presto) stands in second position and creates a lighter atmosphere. The slow movement (Larghetto) is - as are all Reger's slow movements - of almost Brucknerian gravity and depth of expression, with great emotional intensity. In the finale (Allegro con grazie e con spirito) Reger indulges his taste for counterpoint: the movement is structured as a double fugue, but surprisingly also manages to retain a sense of lightness and grace. A rewarding work for those listeners who take the effort to undergo this music with full concentration.
Recording listened to: Mannheimer Streichquartett on MDG (with Quartet No 5). 


7. Anton Webern, Five Movements for String Quartet Op 5 (1909)
The Austrian composer Anton Webern (1883-1945) was, together with his colleague Alban Berg, the most promising pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. Together the three composers made up the Second Viennese School (also Krenek and Adorno can be added to its roster), which propagated atonality and later the twelve-tone technique. Webern's music was the most radical of the three. In fact, he was the kind of pupil who steals the show from his teacher in the fast application of new ideas. That was also the case with his Five Movements for String Quartet of 1909, where he jumped into the pool of full atonality, after Schoenberg had just dipped in his toe with his Second Quartet of the previous year. Webern on purpose used the title "five movements," because they are not linked in a way that would justify the name "string quartet," but on the other hand they are also not just loose "pieces." All five movements are extremely brief. The first movement has a certain outward show of sonata form, albeit on a tightly compressed scale. Webern also was a leader in the exploration of "tone color as melody" ("Klangfarbenmelodie"), and his palette here includes the use of the wood of the bow to strike the strings or bowing near the bridge. The second, slow movement is indeed an Adagio, but on a scale where it becomes almost meaningless to speak of form: a melodic thread passes up from the viola to the second violin to the first, and then back again, accompanied by faint chords and little ostinatos. After this comes a scherzo that is over almost before it has begun, which is a pity as its use of pizzicato is quite interesting. The fourth movement is another quiet Adagio, now of an almost supernatural quality with slow tonal shifts and suggestive half-phrases. The fifth movement is the longest of the miniatures, consisting of a sort of tremulously expressive fragments that emerge from a faint impulse into barely perceptible shapes leading to a brief intense outburst, before everything again falls back into the shadows. Webern published two other seminal quartet works. His Six Bagatelles of 1913 consist of pieces that are even shorter than the Five Movements, a sort of abstract enigmas, by Virgil Thomson called "the pulverization of sound into a kind of luminous dust." And in 1938 Webern published his String Quartet Op 28, another short work at just 8 minutes playing time, and the most advanced and undiluted exploration of the possibilities of the twelve-tone technique (the Movements and Bagatelles were atonal, but did not yet use the twelve-tone technique which still had to be devised by Schoenberg). The Quartet would greatly influence postwar music both in Europe and the U.S., as more than Schoenberg's music, this became the starting point for the serialist composers. By the way, in 1929 also a version for string orchestra of the Five Movements came out.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Debussy on Harmonia Mundi (complete string quartet music by Webern).

8. Igor Stravinsky, Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914)
Igor Stravinsky's inroads into chamber music are as idiosyncratic as his music in other genres. Not a series of serious string quartets, but instead several characteristic works for rather varied ensembles. His string quartet output consists of three tiny works and is a mere 15 minutes long: the post-Le Sacre Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914), the neoclassical Concertino (1920), and the concise, twelve-tone In Memoriam Raoul Dufy (1959). But just like the music for string quartet by Anton Weber, Stravinsky's quartet pieces are all the more interesting for their brevity, and they do mark significant stylistic boundaries for their composer. Stravinsky completed his brief and experimental  Three Pieces for String Quartet in 1914 (though they were not published until 1922), which means they have the freshness and impudence of works like Petrushka and Le Sacre. All three can be seen as studies in sonorities, or in "popular, fantastic, and liturgical moods," pushing music to its limits. The first two movements treat simultaneously variable meters and off-beat rhythms, characteristic of the "Russian style" of the composer in Rite of Spring. In addition, the first movement reminds one of Russian folk melodies, and it uses ostinati (repeated figures) as in Rite of Spring but in a more mechanical way. The second, almost atonal movement takes on Debussy-like hues in its undulating tempi. The third movement presents the strictness of a chorale, in a static and austere quasi-religious style that Stravinsky later would return to many times. In the 1920s these pieces were not well received by critics, who were unable to make sense of this fragmentary, seemingly incoherent music. The work is difficult to play, as Stravinsky's score calls for some extreme effects from the players. The rhythmic vivacity and a certain disjunctiveness add a further element of challenge. Stravinsky later included orchestrations of the Three Pieces as part of the Four Studies for Orchestra (1929), adding as titles for the three pieces "Dance," "Eccentric" and "Canticle."
Recording listened to: Tokyo String Quartet on Praga (with other chamber music by Stravinsky).

9. Frederick Delius, String Quartet (1916-1918)
The English composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934) spent most of his life as an expatriate in France. Born to a prosperous mercantile family, he was meant for commerce but botched the management of an orange plantation in Florida, after which he was allowed to study music in Germany. Next, he embarked on a full-time career as a composer, residing in Paris and then in nearby Grez-sur-Loing, where he and his wife lived for the rest of their lives. Delius' first success came in the 1890s in Germany, followed by England from 1907, when Sir Thomas Beecham took up the cause of his music. Delius developed a style uniquely his own, very lyrical with long-flowing melodies, and characterized by use of chromatic harmony. He belonged to no school, but forged an individual and personal idiom. He wrote operas, large-scale choral works, concertos for violin, cello and piano, and many shorter orchestral works, but also beautiful chamber music. The String Quartet was written at a time when Delius had to leave his house in France due to the German advance during WWI, and briefly sought a refuge in England. In this period, he moved away from the programmatic works of his past and wrote more absolute music: a violin sonata, a violin concerto, and a double concerto for violin and cello - and also the present string quartet. By the way, this quartet was Delius' third, if we also count two apprentice works written in the late 1880s-early 1890s in Paris. Originally, it was conceived as a work in three movements: "With animation," "Slow and wistfully" (subtitled "Late Swallows," a beautiful slow movement that was also separately published as music for string orchestra), and "Very quick and vigorously." To this, in 1918 Delius added a scherzo-like movement, "Quick and lightly," that now stands in second position. The string quartet truly is a work with a glowingly rounded and generous-hearted sunset lyricism.
Recording listened to: Brodsky String Quartet on ASV Digital (with String Quartet by Elgar).

10. Egon Wellesz, String Quartet No 3 Op 25 (1918)
Egon Wellesz (1885-1974) was a child of fin de siècle Vienna who emigrated to Oxford after the Nazis came to power (although his parents were Hungarian Christians, they both had Jewish ancestry). He studied harmony, counterpoint and fugue with Schoenberg, who remained a large influence on his music. Though he embraced to some extent atonal harmonies and serial techniques (Wellesz wrote the first book-length study about Schoenberg), in principle Wellesz remained loyal to tonality even in his most radical compositions. Wellesz wrote operas and ballets, nine excellent symphonies and a large amount of chamber music, among which also nine interesting string quartets (written between 1912 and 1966). After his move to England, Wellesz obtained British citizenship and also became known as a musicologist for his research into Byzantine music. But as in the case of other emigre composers, this meant the loss of his reputation as a composer - he remained a permanent outsider in his new country, a Viennese at heart. The Third Quartet was composed towards the end of WWI in June 1918 when Wellesz was on a family holiday in the spa town of Altaussee. The quartet has a radiant quality, and it positively bustles with ideas and styles, perhaps also because the composer himself seems to have been at a stylistic crossroads, trying to find ways to synthesize competing influences such as Mahler, Schoenberg, Debussy and Bartók. The intense first movement (Langsam) features a highly chromatic first theme, and a contrasting second theme. In contrast the agitated, scherzo-like second movement (Leidenschaftlich bewegt) is a wild dance, while the Trio glances at Debussy. The third movement (Sehr gedehnt), a lyrical cantilena with choral-like phrases, forms the emotional core of the quartet. The cheerful finale (Anmutig bewegt. Heiter) is a sort of contrapuntal gigue imbued with a subtle Hungarian flavor.
Recording listened to: Artis Quartet Wien on Nimbus Records (with quartets No 4 & 6).


11. Zoltán Kodály, String Quartet No 2 Op 10 (1918)
The Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Zoltan Kodály (1882-1967) studied at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. After graduating, he began a serious study of Hungarian folk melody. In 1905, he started visiting remote villages and recording folk songs. At this time, Kodály also met fellow composer Béla Bartók, who was of the same age and shared his interest in folk music. Kodály later went to Paris where he studied with Charles Widor and was greatly impressed by the music of Debussy. Kodály composed in most genres, and although he did not write much chamber music, what he wrote is invariably engaging. His String Quartet No 2 was composed during WWI, at a time when folk song collecting was impossible due to the hostilities. Where his First Quartet had used actual folk melodies, the Second Quartet does not use quotations, but exists at a more advanced stage: here the folk idiom has become a permanent element of art music, so to speak the composer's mother tongue. The quartet also no longer keeps to traditional form, but is freely structured in two movements: an Allegro and an Andante "quasi recitativ" which flows into an Allegro giocoso. The work has an airy texture and pentatonic elements coexist with counterpoint. There are also several stylistic elements borrowed from folk performance, such as an ostinato accompaniment resembling bagpipes or the use of folk ornaments such as appoggiaturas (short embellishing notes played before the main note). The first movement is monothematic, built from motifs that spring from a common root, and which are interwoven with each other. The second movement begins with the first violin playing a rhapsodic solo and then proceeds through various different sections; the tempo slowly picks up and the music finally morphs into the Allegro giocoso. The quartet boasts a broad range of instrumental effects as well as a varied atmosphere ranging from solitary lamentation to shared jubilation. A work with a strong individualistic character.
Recording listened to: Kodály Quartet on Hungaroton (with String Quartet No 1).

12. Edward Elgar, String Quartet in E Minor Op 83 (1918)
The String Quartet belongs to the late autumn of Edward Elgar's (1857-1934) compositional life. Depressed by the war years, he retreated to the Sussex cottage "Brinkwells" to revive his spirits, and the renewed sense of well-being he found there helped him write the Violin Sonata, Piano Quintet and the String Quartet - as well as start on his last major work, the Cello Concerto. Elgar was one of those composers who regarded the writing of  a string quartet (that exacting genre) as a major hurdle; he had written and discarded several string quartets in his early years. The first movement of the String Quartet (Allegro moderato) starts with an ascending, questioning motif. The mood is plaintive and restless but curiously subdued in its expression. The second subject is more confident, but the general feeling remains one of unrest and uncertainty. The slow movement, marked Piacevole ("pleasing"), has a simple song-like melody as its first theme that seems to refer to a world of lost innocence. Lady Elgar was particularly fond of this movement, which she described as "captured sunshine." The rhythmically exciting last movement (Allegro molto) of this three-movement quartet is passionate and forceful - with the first theme, Elgar recaptures the brilliance of his earlier orchestral works and the quartet thus reaches a triumphant close.
Recording listened to: Brodsky String Quartet on ASV Digital (with String Quartet by Delius).

13. Joseph-Ermend Bonnal, String Quartet No 1 (1919)
Joseph-Ermend Bonnal (1880-1944) was born in Bordeaux and studied at the Paris Conservatoire with De Bériot, Vierne, Tournemire and Fauré. He held various organist positions, in Bayonne and elsewhere, but never in the capital, which hampered the spread of his music. He is one of a number of French composers active in the early 20th c. who have been unjustly forgotten even in their own country: Guy-Ropartz, Lazzari, Canteloube, Witkowski, etc. His First String Quartet has been compared to that by Ravel because of its intense, abundant lyricism. Lasting for about 30 minutes, it presents a wide variety of moods and a great wealth of invention. The first movement ("Vif") has a positively overflowing character. Bonnal presents a rich palette of color, with very clear counterpoint. The second movement ("Assez vif") is subtitled "apre et sarcastique," or "fierce and sarcastic." Characterized by vigorous pizzicati, it calls Bartok to mind. The third movement ("Grave et expressive") is solemn and nostalgic. The finale ("Tres anime") provides a synthesis of the quartet as a whole. Bonnal had an interest in folksong which is as much an integral part of the texture of his music as in the cases of Moeran, Vaughan Williams and Bartók.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Debussy on Arion (with Second String Quartet).


14. Gian Francesco Malipiero, Quartet No 1 "Rispetti e Strambotti" (1920)
The Italian composer and musicologist Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973) was born in Venice. He studied with Marco Bossi in Venice and Bologna, but also made his own study of the works of Monteverdi and Frescobaldi. In 1913, he lived briefly in Paris where he became acquainted with the works of Ravel, Debussy, Schoenberg and Berg, but what made the strongest impression on him was Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, of which he attended the première. Later in life Malipiero would become Professor of Composition at the Venice Liceo Musicale (he taught, for example, avant-garde composers Luigi Nono and Bruno Maderna), but he settled down for good in Asolo in the Veneto region in 1921. There he undertook the large editorial work for which he is now famous, a complete edition of Monteverdi (1926-1942) and an edition of Vivaldi's concerti (after 1952). Malipiero had an ambivalent attitude towards the musical tradition dominated by Austro-German composers, and instead insisted on the rediscovery of pre-19th century Italian music. He tried to find alternatives to sonata form, basing his compositions on free, non-thematic ("motivistic") passages. His early music is diatonic; later in life he moved closer to total chromaticism. Malipiero wrote in various genres, but central to his oeuvre are the seventeen symphonies and the eight string quartets which are spread out through his whole life. The best string quartet is perhaps the first one (Malipiero himself included it in a list of his five most important compositions), nicknamed "Rispetti e Strambotti," a reference to two early forms of Italian poetry. "Rispetti" were roundelays, while "strambotti" were popular poems for lovers. The quartet is in one movement (like all Malipiero's quartets) structured as a sequence of short sections interspersed by the opening phrase as a sort of ritornello. The episodic melodic subjects are meant to call to mind various aspects of the Renaissance. A very original quartet.
Recording listened to: Orpheus String Quartet on Brilliant Classics (complete quartets by Malipiero).



15. Paul Hindemith, String Quartet No 4 Op 22 (1921)
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), who was himself a violinist and later violist, wrote seven string quartets, between 1915 and 1945; he also was a quartet player in the Amar Quartet, for which he wrote three of his quartets. One of these was the Fourth Quartet, premiered by the Amar Quartet on November 4, 1921, in Donaueschingen. In it, the sound, style and harmonic characteristics are already distinctly those we have come to associate with Hindemith's music. By turns tempestuous and beautiful, it soon became one of his most played quartets. The five-part quartet is in the form of a suite. The first movement starts straightaway with a slow fugato, to be played “very tenderly and intimately.” This accelerates and intensifies into a tumultuous outburst. The second movement is a turbulent and obsessive scherzo ("Sehr energisch"), rhythmically very brilliant. The slow third movement is the heart of the quartet. The mysterious nocturnal mood is set by the low pizzicati which provide the atmosphere for the wistful melody in the second violin and its polytonal answer in the first. Full of unsentimental melancholy (to be performed with "little expression"), this is one of the most beautiful movements Hindemith ever wrote. The brief next movement is a demonic and highly virtuoso Bach prelude set as a cadenza first for the cello alone and then for both cello and viola together. The viola then leads into the fifth movement, a grotesquely graceful rondo finale. This is a quintessentially modern quartet, impersonal but also intense and rhythmical, and born from profuse invention, giving the lie to those who consider Hindemith's music as "dry."
Recording listened to: Juilliard String Quartet on Wergo (with quartets No 1 and No 7).


16. Leoš Janáček, String Quartet No 1 "Kreutzer Sonata" (1923)
Leoš Janáček wrote his best and most characteristic works (his operas, chamber music, sinfonietta, concertante works for piano, etc.) when he was past fifty. Living in Brno, far removed from the major European music centers, he developed a highly original style, based on an expanded view of tonality, unorthodox chord spacings, and modality. He also uses constant repetitions of short motifs which gather momentum in a cumulative manner, growing into phrases, but still having an "unfinished" feeling. Janáček wrote two string quartets, the second one ("Intimate Letters") based on his undeclared love for a much younger, married woman, Kamila Stösslová, with whom he carried on an extensive correspondence, and the first one written after the novella The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy. In that novella, a train traveler meets a man, Pozdnychev, who propounds a jaundiced view of love and marriage, by confessing how he came to murder his wife in a fit of jealous rage brought on by the suspicion that she was having an affair with a musician, a violinist. One day when he returned unexpectedly from a business trip, he found them together performing Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata with ecstatic faces. Enraged, he stabbed his wife to death - and was later acquitted of the murder, because it was all for his "honor." In his quartet, Janáček conveys the personalities and emotions of Tolstoy's protagonists in a vivid psychological drama. The first movement concerns the relationship between Pozdnychev and his wife and the abyss between them created by their mutual hatred, which makes the smallest excuse sufficient to produce a crisis. The wife's poignant song of longing on muted strings is repeatedly stifled by the husband's aggressive theme. In the second movement we meet the elegant musician Trukhachevski. A mysterious sul ponticello (with the bow near the bridge to produce a nasal tone) passage suggests the fateful moment when he is introduced to the wife, leading to the arousal of her feelings. The opening of the third movement with its allusion to Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, conveys the rapt atmosphere of their playing that sonata together, as well as the state of agitation it induces in Pozdnychev when he happens to see them. Then comes the unleashing of his jealous rage and the terrible moment when his dagger strikes at his wife's breast (the musician flees unharmed). The final movement, based on the wife's motive of the first movement, shows us the wife as she lies dying. I am happy to say that, different from Tolstoy, Janáček was not inspired by the hurt feelings of the husband, but by compassion for the unhappy wife, making the quartet a protest against the subjugation of women.
Recording listened to: The Medici String Quartet on Nimbus Records (with Second String Quartet).


17. Alfredo Casella, Concerto for String Quartet Op 40b (1923)
The Italian composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) was born in Turin and studied with Fauré in Paris. Back in Italy during WWI, he taught piano at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. From 1927 to 1929 Casella was the principal conductor of the Boston Pops. Casella was one of the leading promoters of modern Italian music. Like other composers of his generation (called "generation of '80"), as Malipiero (No 14 above), Respighi, Pizzetti, and Alfano, he concentrated on writing instrumental works, rather than the operas in which Puccini and his musical forebears had specialized. They sought examples in the Italian music of the Renaissance and Baroque rather than in the Austro-German tradition. Casella is especially know for his neoclassical modernist style, which comes clearly to the fore in the present Concerto for String Quartet (the title can be seen as an analogy with Stravinsky's neoclassical Concertino, also for string quartet). At the same time, Casella wanted to give the message that this was not one of those post-Romantic quartets he spurned, but music searching for a new language. The quartet is clearly Italian Baroque-inspired, starting with a Sinfonia, which is followed by a Siciliana, a Minuetto/Recitativo/Aria and it closes with a Canzone. The piece contains some furious, Vivaldi-like string writing, tying in with the Vivaldi revival just then spearheaded by Casella. The Sinfonia has all the virtuoso vigor of a concerto grosso. The ghostly Siciliana possesses a haunting beauty with the translucent sounds of violins and viola on the basis of a pizzicato cello line. The strutting Minuetto is another attractive neoclassical recreation. The work ends with a frenetic Canzone that reaches a thrilling conclusion. The Concerto quickly became an international success and was in 1929 also arranged for string orchestra (its expansiveness apparently crying out for larger forces).
Recording listened to: Quartetto d'Archi di Venezia on Naxos (with Cinque Pezzi, etc.).

18. Ernst Toch, String Quartet No 10 (1923)
The Austrian composer Ernst Toch (1887-1964) was born in Vienna and studied philosophy at the University of Vienna, medicine at Heidelberg and music in Frankfurt. Largely self-taught in music, in the interbellum Toch grew into one of the fixtures of Weimar Germany's modernist music scene. A fervent experimentalist (though firmly planted in the great German tradition), his chamber operas, cello and piano concertos and his string quartets were regularly performed in and outside Germany and Austria, but this all changed when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Toch understood what that meant and went immediately into exile, first to Paris, then London, and finally California. For his living he now composed music scores in Hollywood, but he never achieved the fame his colleague Korngold did as a screen composer. The rich tradition of immersion in high and in particular in avant garde culture that had grounded Toch's creative life was simply gone in the U.S., making it initially difficult to compose. He served as professor at the University of Southern California and also was a guest lecturer at Harvard University. But in a blast of creativity at the end of his life, Toch took to composing again and wrote nine symphonies, one of which earned the Pulitzer prize. Despite that, Toch would be forgotten (until his recent rediscovery). Ernst Toch wrote 13 string quartets, but the first five were lost when he fled Europe. The remaining eight quartets, 6 to 13, span the years 1905 to 1953. Quartets 6 to 9 are the "early quartets," when Toch still employed a traditional language. Quartets 10 to 13 are the "modern quartets," written in a largely atonal idiom. The first of this group, the Tenth String Quartet from 1923, is interesting as it captures the moment that Toch was moving between lush late-romanticism and a more astringent modernism, stretching beyond the boundaries of tonality. There is a nervously energetic first movement ("Energisch"), followed by a gorgeous Adagio molto, a long quiet movement based on a deeply affecting (and almost religious) melody, which is the centerpiece of the quartet. The third movement is interestingly marked as "Slinking like a cat, mysterious (Katzenhaft schleichend...)" - and we indeed hear rather ghostly cats slinking around and meowing. The quartet closes with a lively movement ("Lebhaft"). Despite the atonal language, Toch's feeling for classical form persists in this beautiful quartet.
Recording listened to: Buchberger Quartett on CPO (with Quartet No 7).

19. Kurt Weill, String Quartet Op 8 (1922-23)
The German composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950) is known for his fruitful collaborations with Bertolt Brecht in stage productions as The Threepenny Opera (1928). But there is more to Weill than that - after graduating from the Berliner Hochschule für Musik where his teacher was Engelbert Humperdinck, he first wrote symphonic and chamber works, including his First String Quartet (still a student work) and his First Symphony. Weill also was one of five master students in a composition class given by Busoni. Mature works from the early 1920s were the String Quartet Op 8 and the Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra Op 12. But Weill tended more and more to vocal music and musical theater and that is the direction he went in, writing many more great stage works such as Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930). In 1933, Weill and his wife the singer Lotte Lenya fled Nazi Germany and two years later emigrated to the U.S., where they settled in New York. Weill kept active in the musical world, but tragically died of a heart attack in 1950. Weill's (second) String Quartet Op 8 belongs wholly to its time and shows many influences: a pinch of Expressionism, some neoclassicism, even whiff of Mahler. But Weill synthesizes all these strains into something his own. The first movement ("Introduction") has been said to foreshadow "Melodrama" at the beginning of the second act of The Threepenny Opera. The second movement ("Scherzo") features a Mahlerian marching Trio. The third and last movement is called "Chorale Fantasia" and is the most elaborate movement. It starts with a theme heard in the cello that is subjected to various treatments, polyphonic, song-like, and rhapsodic. This is a very "cool" quartet in which Weill shows he knows how to use rhythm and keep things moving. The first performance took place in 1923 in Frankfurt by the famous Amar Quartett with Paul Hindemith (see No 15) playing viola.
Recording listened to: Leipziger Streichquartett on MDG (with Weill's String Quartet 1918 and Hindemith's Minimax).

20. Erwin Schulhoff, String Quartet No 1 (1924)
Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) was born in Prague of Jewish German origin. He studied not only in Prague (receiving encouragement from Dvorak) but also in Vienna, Leipzig and Cologne. He was another one of those composers whose successful careers were terminated by the rise of the Nazi regime and whose works have since been rarely performed. He served on the Russian front in the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI. After the war, he lived in Germany until returning to Prague in 1923 where he joined the faculty of the conservatory in 1929. Schulhoff embraced the avant-garde influence of Dadaism and was also one of the first classical composers to find inspiration in the rhythms of jazz. Schulhoff also had communist sympathies and in 1941 applied for citizenship in the Soviet Union. But he was arrested and imprisoned before he could leave Czechoslovakia; deported to the Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria, he died in August 1942 from tuberculosis. Schulhoff wrote 8 symphonies, concertante works, and various pieces of chamber music. He wrote two string quartets, in 1924 and 1925 (and a third one, No 0, in 1918). The first quartet has been called an elegy on the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Although Schoenberg is a prominent presence, elements of Bartók, Stravinsky and Hindemith are also significant. The first movement (Presto con fuoco) starts with a hectic interplay between the four instruments, capturing the restless spirit of its times; there is also a certain folk-inflected quality to the material. The second movement (Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca) is a sort of ghostly waltz, like Ravel's La Valse a post-WWI evocation of the splendor of old Vienna, which has turned into a dance macabre. The third movement (Allegro giocoso alla Slovacca) is based on an earthy folk-like theme of Slovakian provenance. The finale (Andante molto sostenuto), the longest movement of the quartet, is surprisingly a slow movement, building toward an outburst of atonal protest. In this First Quartet, Schulhoff rejects sentimentality and longwindedness and brings folk music to the fore, as is for example evident from its rich pentatonic harmonies and repetitive ostinato accompaniments. Another forgotten composer who deserves to be rehabilitated.
Recording listened to: Aviv Quartet on Naxos (with Quartet No 2 etc.).



21. Gabriel Fauré, String Quartet in E minor Op 121 (1924)
Like Franck, Fauré wrote his single string quartet late in life, completing it shortly before his death at age 79 in 1924. Not surprisingly, the work has been described as an intimate meditation on "the last things." The quartet is in three movements, the last movement combining the joint functions of scherzo and finale. The first movement is in sonata form. The opening theme, played by the viola, is answered by the first violin; Fauré apparently used the themes here from an early, abandoned violin concerto. The contemplative Andante winds its course through meandering scales and changing dynamics. It was the first movement of the quartet that Fauré wrote and has been called "one of the finest pieces of string quartet writing, bathing in a supernatural light." The final Allegro is again in sonata form. The cello introduces the scherzo theme over a pizzicato accompaniment. The work ends with an explosion of joy, a triumphant arrival in E major. A rarefied distillation of Fauré's style.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Parrenin on EMI Classics (with Piano Trio Op 120).

22. Rued Langgaard, String Quartet No  3, BVN 183 (1924)
Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) is Denmark's eccentric cult composer (see my post about his Sixth Symphony). Langaard showed his musical talents at a young age and privately studied the organ, the violin and music theory - he also studied counterpoint with Nielsen (see No 3). Although already as a teenager Langgaard appeared as an organ virtuoso and symphonist in the grand style, he had to work in obscurity as assistant organist and for many years unsuccessfully tried to find a permanent position. Only at the age of 46 did he manage to obtain the position of organist at the cathedral in Ribe, the oldest town in Denmark, situated in southwest Jutland. Langaard's unconventional music was at odds with critics and the public and he was only recognized 16 years after his death. He wrote 16 symphonies, other symphonic and concertante music, an opera, and also 4 violin sonatas and 8 string quartets. Those quartets were mainly written within an interval of eleven years, from 1914 until 1925 (four in only twelve months, in 1918-19). These were the composer's productive youthful years, when he also created major works like symphonies 4 and 6, The Music of the Spheres and the opera Antichrist. In the next phase, from 1925 until 1940, when his composing almost came to a halt, he revised and reworked several of the quartets. The Third Quartet dates from 1924 and was the only one that was published during the composer's lifetime, in 1931. It also had the for Langaard rare luck to be performed by a renowned string quartet, the Breuning-Bache Quartet. Although Langaard's music normally oscillates between Classicist, Romantic, Neoclassical, Expressionist and Modernist features, the Third Quartet, with its aggressively Expressionist tonal idiom, represents the wildest avant-garde in Danish music of the 1920s. In this quartet, Langgaard both defends Modernist music, and at the same time ironizes its dissonant and aggressive character. This last aspect is clear from the titles of the movements: (1) Poco allegro rapinoso ("rapacious"), (2) Presto scherzoso artifizioso ("artificial"), (3) Tranquillo - Schernevole - Tranquillo - Mosso Frenetico - Maestoso (schernevole is "scoffing"). Not surprisingly, the chorale that begins the last movement proves to be an anchor of confidence among the maelstrom of modern music and carries off victory in the end. Contemporary critics talked about "eruptions of an adventurous temperament and a fantasy heated to the melting point." Things changed in the 1960s, when György Ligeti described himself as a "Langgaard disciple" and Langgaard was finally "rediscovered" as "an ecstatic outsider."
Recording listened to: Nightingale String Quartet on Dacapo (with quartets No 2 and No 6).


23. Pavel Haas, String Quartet No 2 Op 7 "From the Monkey Mountains" (1925)
Pavel Haas (1899–1944) was born into a wealthy and prominent Jewish family in the Moravian capital of Brno (in today's Czech Republic). He studied at the Brno Conservatory and was for two years a pupil in the master class of Leoš Janáček, another citizen of Brno (see No 14). Janáček was a decisive influence on Haas' compositional style, but he also drew inspiration from a diverse range of sources such as Moravian folksong and composers like Stravinsky, Honegger, Milhaud and Poulenc. Of the more than 50 works Haas wrote during the next two decades, only 18 were given opus numbers by the self-critical composer. He wrote musical works of all kinds, including symphonic and choral works, lieder, chamber music, and scores for cinema and theater. In 1938, his opera Šarlatán (The Charlatan) was performed in Brno to great acclaim. The Nazi onslaught changed Haas' life - his music was forbidden and, like so many Czech Jews, in 1941 he was sent to the ghetto set up in the walled town of Terezín (Theresienstadt). Haas continued composing in the camp, but in October 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz and murdered by the Nazis. Haas' music was in fact killed twice - as was the music of so many other composers from central Europe: first by being forbidden by the Nazis, which cut their careers short, and later, after the war, by dictatorial Serialists as Boulez and Stockhausen who defined musical history narrowly as steps from Schoenberg via Berg and Webern to their own compositions and excluded everything else from its annals (unfortunately, from the fifties to the seventies critical opinion in Europe was on the Serialist side; this would only change in the last decades the century, when also composers as Haas were "rediscovered," but that was not enough for a true rehabilitation). Pavel Haas wrote three string quartets, of which the Second Quartet from 1925 is the most interesting. It is subtitled "From the Monkey Mountains" and was inspired by a summer trip into the Moravian highlands. The mellow and lyrical first movement is called "Landscape." The scherzo-like second movement is called "Coach, Coachman and Horse" and suggests a rickety vehicle negotiating a bumpy track. The third movement, "The Moon and Me," is a sort of contemplative night-music. The finale, "Wild Night," turns to another sort of night, that of a boisterous festival. There are some jazzy sounds and even a real Latin American rumba. Haas included an optional percussion part for this movement. A highly original and musically intelligent quartet.
Recording listened to: Hawthorne String Quartet on Decca (with Third String Quartet and String Quartet by Hans Krasa).

[Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. Special mention should be made of the interesting study The String Quartet, A History by Paul Griffiths (Thames and Hudson: Bath, 1985). All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
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