"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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November 25, 2015

Best String Quartets, Part 2 (ca 1850-1900)

Here is the second installment of Best String Quartets, basically containing quartets from the second half of the 19th century. As in my other music posts, I mix immortal masterworks with unknown pieces by forgotten composers which are of interest to connoisseurs.

1. Franz Lachner, String Quartet No 1 in B Minor Op 75 (1843)
Franz Lachner (1803-90) was born in Rain am Lech in southern Germany and trained in Munich. Through winning a competition, in 1823 he became organist in Vienna, where he met Beethoven and became close friends with Schubert, who was only slightly older. In 1834 he left Vienna to become Conductor of the Royal Bavarian Orchestra and Professor at the Conservatory in Munich. His diligent work as conductor turned the Bavarian capital, which had been a musical backwater, into an important European music center. Lachner was a fine composer, in a style that reminds one of Schubert – but while Schubert died in 1828, Lachner lived a full life until 1890. Lachner composed in all genres – his symphonies and orchestral suites were admired by Mendelssohn and Schumann and very popular in the 19th century (until he became one of the victims of the New German School) – and he also wrote fine chamber music, including seven string quartets (an early unpublished one, three quartets published in 1843 and three published in 1849), written for his private quartet group - Lachner himself was a cellist. By the way, he came from a very musical family, and also his brother Ignaz was famous as a musician and composer. The First String Quartet was written in the late 1830's and published in 1843. The Allegro moderato opening movement is monothematic (that is to say, as often is the case with Haydn as well, although in sonata form, there is no second contrasting theme) and opens with a lyrical melody steeped in a hue of sadness; it is a variant of this theme that serves as s sort of second theme and Lachner also uses masterful counterpoint to enhance the melody. The movement is a mirror image of the Romantic soul in torment and asks high technical skill and expressiveness of the performers. The Adagio quasi andante begins with an ethereal introduction, partly achieved because the cello keeps silent. The lovely main theme has a song-like, even Schubertian quality. The Scherzo employs a driving rhythm with a steady pulse in the cello, storming breathtakingly ahead; the Trio is a stately dance. The Allegro agitato finale is characterized by an urgent and pleading theme, sounding as if in perpetual motion. The restless storm continues until the very end. This is a very attractive and sophisticated quartet in the style of classic romanticism.
Recording listened to: Rodin-Quartett on Amati (with Quartet Op 77).

2. Anton Rubinstein, String Quartet No 2 in C Minor, Op 17 No 2 (1852)
Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) was one of the great virtuoso pianists of the 19th century, a rival of Liszt. He was also active as a conductor and composer (in all genres, including the symphony, chamber music, ballet and opera). In 1862 he founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory, setting strict standards for musical education. As a composer, Rubinstein was strongly influenced by Mendelssohn (without being an epigone - Mendelssohn exerted a tremendous influence on music in the middle of the 19th century, as far away as Denmark, England and the Netherlands), one of the reasons why his music was forgotten after his death. For in Germany, it was blasted as "conservative" by the New German School, and in Russia it was vilified because it had no "Russian flavor" (Rubinstein was an international composer rather than merely a national one). Rubinstein wrote a total of ten quartets; the first two were already composed when he was only in his early twenties. The Second Quartet indeed reminds one of Mendelssohn. The Moderato opening movement starts with a fugue which is based on the dramatic main theme of the movement. The busy Scherzo has a strong forward drive; the Trio features some comic relief with its "exclamations" by cello and violin. The most interesting movement is the Molto lento, played with mutes – it has been compared to “music of the spheres.” Although it bears resemblance to Mendelssohn's "Lieder ohne Worte," it also is the only movement that has a Russian flavor, although not as strong as with Borodin c.s. The final Moderato is filled with the sort of noble passion characteristic for Mendelssohn's music in a minor key.
Recording listened to: The Royal String Quartet Copenhagen on Etcetera (with First Quartet).

3. Carl (Karoly) Goldmark, String Quartet in B Flat Major Op 8 (1860)
Carl Goldmark (1830-1915) was born in the Hungarian part of Austria-Hungary and – as so many in the empire – came to Vienna to make name, in his case as violinist and composer. In that last capacity he was largely self-taught, undertaking an intense study of counterpoint and works by Bach and Beethoven. Around the year 1860, when he was thirty, he finally managed to attract public attention as a composer with his string quartet Op. 8. Still later, he earned European fame with his opera The Queen of Sheba; other popular works (which are still occasionally heard today) were his Violin Concerto and the Rustic Wedding Symphony (he also wrote an interesting String Quintet). Goldmark's music shows the influence of Mendelssohn and Schumann, often seasoned with idioms from the folk music of his youth. After a plaintively yearning introduction, the opening movement (Allegro moderato) of Goldmark's sole String Quartet is characterized by two contrasting themes, one rather restless, the other a lyrical song. With its dramatic confrontations and piquant harmonies, most of the movement has a bittersweet flavor. The pensive and melancholic Andante sostenuto leaves no doubt about its Hungarian roots. Sorrow intensifies into despair before sinking back to a hushed and dolorous close. This is followed by a short and fleet Scherzo, unashamedly Mendelssohnian, that restores some good humor although there are also darker undercurrents. The dramatically impassioned Allegro molto finale has again a strong Hungarian flavor but also a fugal sequence at its heart. The brilliant movement works towards a triumphantly rousing peroration.
Recording listened to: Fourth Dimension String Quartet on ASV (with string quintet).

4. Eduard Franck, String Quartet No 3 in C Minor Op 55 (about 1870, pub. 1899)
Eduard Franck (1817-1893) was born in Breslau (then part of Prussia, now Wroclaw in Poland) in a cultivated banker's family. He studied with Mendelssohn as a private student. As a talented pianist, he enjoyed a dual career as a concert artist and music pedagogue for more than four decades. Due to his modesty, he never achieved lasting public recognition as a composer - he continually delayed releasing his works until they were polished to his demanding standards. That is also true for his Third String Quartet (of a total of three), which was probably composed around 1870, but only published after Franck's death by his son Richard in 1899. The Allegro starts with a striking and powerful opening, in which an archaically pounding bass in the cello prepares the ground for the descending subject in the violin, a sort of theme of destiny, which determines the minor mode character of the work. The second subject, first stated by the cello singing in its high register, opens up a large-scale vista of a contrasting lyrical world. The calm second movement is an Allegretto with a pastoral flavor and a naively simple main theme. In the Scherzo Franck adopts a Hungarian tone in swirling triple time, which he contrasts with an innocent ländler in the Trio. The lively finale, a sonata-form Allegro, appears as a breathless sequence of quickly changing moods, eventually leading to a rousing conclusion. Franck also wrote symphonic music, such as two symphonies and several concerts for piano and violin, but his chamber music is considered as his finest achievement. The present attractive quartet shows that Franck had a lively imagination and great mastery of form and does not deserve the neglect with which he has been treated.
Recording listened to: Edinger Quartett on Audite (with Quartet Op. 54).

5. Giuseppe Verdi, String Quartet in E Minor (1873, publ. 1876)
The opera composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) needs no further introduction. Although his whole oeuvre consists of operas and a several religious vocal works, there is also that single string quartet as a true rara avis. Verdi wrote it in Naples in March 1873, while waiting for a new staging of Aida to begin, and seems to have been surprised himself at his sole excursion into chamber music. He spoke very modestly, even disparaging, about it, but when he was persuaded to have it published a few years later, it met with immediate success and recognition. In classical formal terms it is an expertly composed quartet, respecting the style and sensibilities of its own time. The opening Allegro is a sonata movement, but without development and a varied recapitulation. The second movement, Andantino, is a refined mazurka with a coquettish main theme. This short movement has a rondo structure. The Prestissimo third movement is a scherzo with echoes from the opening chorus of Il Trovatore. The quartet ends with a movement entitled "Scherzo fuga" and is indeed the culmination of a work already strongly characterized by counterpoint also in its earlier movements. But this is not a dry academic exercise, Verdi knew well how to exploit the basically dramatic character of this strictest of musical forms.
Recording listened to: Hagen Quartett on Deutsche Grammophon (with transcription for string quartet of Luisa Miller and Chrisantemi by Puccini).

6. Johannes Brahms, String Quartet No 3 in B Flat Major Op 67 (1875)
Brahms wrote three string quartets: two, in C Minor and A Minor, in 1859, and the third - in contrast very sunny - one in 1875. It is indeed an easygoing and cheerful work, of almost divertimento-like playfulness. The dancing first movement (Vivace) starts with a hunting call and Brahms may well have had Mozart’s Hunt Quartet K458 at the back of his mind. The graceful slow movement (Andante) is harmonically rich in the manner of Brahms' earlier quartet slow movements and has a dramatic middle section with a symphonic character. The third movement (Agitato - Allegretto non troppo) is not a scherzo but an interlude containing expressively troubled material - it features a viola solo which all the more stands out as the other players use mutes throughout. The last movement is a set of variations (Poco allegretto con variazioni) that gradually works its way around to recapturing the lively hunting theme of the opening movement, the same procedure as in Brahms' own Clarinet Quintet. A beautiful quartet built on a minimum of musical material that coalesces and expands into ever widening arcs.
Recording listened to: Mandelring Quartet on Audite (with Quartet in C Minor by Herzogenberg).


7. Bedrich Smetana, String Quartet No 1 in E Minor "From my Life" (1876)
Bedrich Smetana (1824-84) was an unorthodox composer who shied away from the symphony, and in his operas and symphonic poems offered an alternative sound world based on his own Bohemian idiom. He was later to be honored as one of the foremost Czech national composers. Smetana's First Quartet was written at a time that the fifty-two year-old composer suffered from severe health problems (Smetana was totally deaf and could work no more than an hour at a time, due to a loud high-pitched sound in his ears) and this seems to have motivated him to attach an autobiographical program note to the music. This is in line with his symphonic poems which also have outside stories, but happily, the quartet can musically also stand on its own, more abstract legs. The first movement is bounded by questing music in E Minor (a sort of "call of Fate to take up life's struggle") and between these calls the composer's "romantic feelings in music, love and life in general" find expression. The second movement is a double polka, a peasant type contrasted with a ballroom type, standing not surprisingly for the "joyful days of youth." The tune given here to the viola has to be played "like a trumpet." The richly interwoven Largo, too, hardly needs the composer's statement that here he recalls "the happiness of first love." Also evident without program is that the rustic dance finale conveys Smetana's enthusiastic nationalism. But at one point the music abruptly breaks off, followed by a low tremolo above which the violin plays a long and high piercing note - the whining E that racked the composer's inner ear during his approaching deafness. The movement then ends with a repeat of the main themes of the first movement and the finale, heard as if in recollection, after which the work ends uneasily.
Recording listened to: The Medici String Quartet on Nimbus Records (with Second Quartet).

8. Joseph Rheinberger, String Quartet No 1 in C Minor Op 89 (1876)
Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901) was born in Liechtenstein and studied at the Royal Conservatory in Munich with Franz Lachner, one of Schubert’s close friends and an important composer in his own right (see No 1 above). Rheinberger became a teacher at his alma mater himself and among his students were Humperdinck, Wolf-Ferrari, Chadwick (see No 20 below) and Furtwangler. He is still somewhat known for his organ compositions today, but in fact in his own time was a highly regarded all-round composer – I am especially impressed by his romantically melodious chamber music. Rheinberger wrote two string quartets, Op 89 discussed here, dating from 1876, and Op 147 in F Major written ten years later. The Allegro non troppo first movement of the First Quartet starts with a dramatic question and answer, but the second theme is purely lyrical. The whole movement is dominated by the rhythm of the main subject with its upbeat, pulsating component parts. This is followed by a dolorous but hymn-like Adagio espressivo. The earthy Scherzo non troppo begins in unisono and bounces along happily; the Trio is  a more muscular affair. The closing Allegretto starts with a motoric restless theme introduced by the viola and keeps rhythmically moving forward until the end. This expert quartet was written when Rheinberger was at the height of his powers and was becoming known internationally - the quartet was in fact premiered in Amersfoort in the Netherlands.
Recording listened to: Camerata Quartet on Thorofon (with Second String Quartet).

9. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, String Quartet No 3 in E Flat Minor Op 30 (1876)
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) surely needs no introduction, although his chamber music is relatively unknown. He wrote three string quartets, all early in his career, between 1871 and 1876. The First Quartet is well-known for its famous "Andante cantabile" second movement, but is also rather sentimental and I prefer the darker Third Quartet (the Second Quartet is rather academic). At the time Tchaikovsky started writing this quartet, he had just finished his Third Symphony and the Swan Lake ballet. The quartet is dedicated to the memory of the violinist Ferdinand Laub, who was not only Tchaikovsky's friend, but also a fellow professor at the Moscow Conservatory and the leader of the string quartet which had premiered his first two quartets. Besides this loss, Tchaikovsky was struggling with depressions and financial problems. The order of the movements is interesting: slow-fast-slow-fast. The first movement ("Andante Sostenuto") begins in a strident manner. There is little sunshine in this melancholy music. Tchaikovsky's concentrated use of musical material calls Schumann to mind. The second movement ("Allegro vivo e scherzando") is an intermezzo, and there is still no light in this least burdened of all four movements. The slow movement ("Andante funebre e doloroso ma con moto"), which explicitly commemorates Laub, is of special depth and individual character. Played muted, the first subject creates a kind of sobbing effect with its use of chords. The first violin is given a lengthy passionate declamatory passage. The mournful movement twice quotes the Russian Orthodox Requiem. Free from any overt folkloristics, this is music which is Russian to the core. The finale ("Allegro risoluto") has a rondo structure. Although this is more vigorous music, the busy activity along its course is not enough to remove the dominating veil of melancholy. A tragic insertion before the conclusion returns us to the beginning of the quartet.
Recording listened to: Koeckert-Quartett on Calig (with First String Quartet).

10. Edvard Grieg, String Quartet in G Minor Op 27 (1878)
The Norwegian composer and pianist Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen, and studied at the Leipzig Conservatoire. Although he started the nationalist movement in Norwegian music, he was cosmopolitan in his own life, and traveled widely in Europe, meeting Liszt in Rome, Gade in Copenhagen, Tchaikovsky in Leipzig, Grainger in London and Roentgen in Amsterdam. Although Grieg wrote a famous piano concerto, and several sonatas (for piano, violin and cello), he is perhaps best known for his miniatures, both for orchestra and the piano. Grieg three times tried his hand at a string quartet, but the first quartet, a student composition, was lost, and the third quartet remained unfinished at his death, so we only have the Quartet in G Minor as his completed work in this genre. As Grieg himself mentioned, it "strives towards breadth, soaring flight and above all resonance for the instruments for which it is written." Grieg reused the melody of one of his songs, Der Spielmann Op 26 No 1 (on words by Ibsen), for the characteristic motto theme that is first heard in the slow introduction to the quartet and then transformed as the second theme in the ensuing Allegro molto ed agitato. This motif recurs throughout the whole quartet, ensuring cyclic unity. The serene second movement, Romance Andantino, is interrupted by this motif and the next Intermezzo (Allegro molto marcato), which is in fact a scherzo, starts with it. The motto theme also appears in the Lento introduction to the Finale, after which it is followed by a rapid dance (Presto al Saltarello), which ends the quartet on an optimistic note. Grieg's quartet style is characterized by parts with a very thick texture, with double, triple and even quadruple stops simultaneously in all instruments. Grieg's first publisher therefore refused the work, deeming that it should be rewritten for strings and piano. But this unique quartet sound is typical for Grieg, who scores thick sections of unison sounds but also juxtaposes them with other textures including skillful counterpoint and a fluid exchange of voices across all four instruments. Like later composers as Debussy, Grieg has in fact re-imagined the way how to use a string quartet and written a fresh work of great originality and musical delight.
Recording listened to: Koeckert-Quartett on Calig (with Quartet in E Minor by Saint-Saens).

11. Alexander Borodin, String Quartet No 2 in D Major (1881)
Borodin (1833-1887) was a doctor and chemist, Professor in Chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg. Although music was a secondary vocation for him (he studied with Balakirev, and was a cellist), he is quite well-known for his symphonies, his two string quartets, In the Steppes of Central Asia and his opera Prince Igor. His music is noted for its passionate lyricism and unusual harmonies; as a member of "The Five" it exudes also an undeniably Russian flavor. The Second String Quartet is a good example. Borodin dedicated the quartet to his wife Ekaterina (a pianist) as an evocation of when they fell in love in Heidelberg 20 years earlier. The whole quartet is therefore imbued with a blissful atmosphere. The first movement (Allegro moderato) starts with a sweet, sighing melody, whereby the cello represents Borodin and the first violin Ekaterina. The movement is rounded off by a luminous coda. After a graceful Scherzo - with a waltz-like second theme - , follows the Nocturne, with its somewhat oriental tune the most famous movement of the quartet (it was also adapted for string orchestra). The cello introduces a tender and ardent melody which is woven through the Nocturne like a silvery thread. In the Finale, Borodin displays his contrapuntal mastery. After a dramatic opening Andante, an energetic Vivace forms a joyous conclusion to the whole work. Where Borodin often left works unfinished or spent a long time over them, this quartet was written in just a few weeks, in one spurt of inspiration. It is deservedly a much-beloved work.
Recording listened to: Borodin String Quartet on EMI (with First Quartet).

12. Hugo Wolf, String Quartet in D Minor (1878-84)
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) was an Austrian composer of Slovene origin, strongly influenced by Wagner and the New German School, and particularly noted for his art songs, his Lieder, to which he brought a greatly concentrated, expressive intensity. Wolf suffered from bouts of depression and illness, and wrote little else besides those Lieder. He worked for most of his life as critic and music teacher in Vienna. His sole String Quartet, written when Wolf was not yet twenty, has an autobiographical feel and remained for 20 years in the drawer (after having taken five years to complete) - it was only performed shortly before Wolf's early death. The first movement, a Grave introduction followed by "leidenschaftlich bewegt," bears the motto "You should do without, do without" ("Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren" from Goethe's Faust) and not surprisingly, is imbued with a sense of desperation, besides rather explosive dramatics. From the very first measure on, a high emotional temperature is set. The richly expressive slow second movement ("Langsam") is huge, lasting about 20 minutes and it ranges widely. This is followed by a grimly determined Scherzo, "Resolut." The finale "Sehr lebhaft" is in a different vein - it was written later to replace the original finale which did not satisfy Wolf. It is bright and lively, like Wolf's Italian Serenade, as if signalling that finally renunciation has been achieved. An interesting quartet in which an absence of complete compositional mastery (it was after all a sort of juvenalia) is paired with a character of passionate confession.
Recording listened to: Auryn Quartett on CPO (with Italian serenade and Intermezzo).

13. Eugen d'Albert, String Quartet No 1 in A Minor Op 7 (1886)
Eugen (originally Eugène) d'Albert (1864-1932) was born in Glasgow to an English mother and a French father. He studied at the Royal College of Music in London with Arthur Sullivan. Soon after that, he had a chance to study with Liszt in Vienna, developing into one of the greatest pianists of his time. After completing his studies, d'Albert embarked on a successful concert career, for example playing Brahms' two piano concertos under the baton of the composer. d'Albert felt himself drawn to Germany and Austria and eventually settled in Germany. In 1907, he became director of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin; he also held the post of Kapellmeister to the Court of Weimar. d'Albert focused increasingly on composition, producing 21 operas (such as Tiefland) and a considerable number of piano, vocal, chamber and orchestral works (a symphony, two piano concertos and a cello concerto). He also wrote two string quartets, both early in his career. The First String Quartet was written shortly after the death of his mentor Franz Liszt. The tempo indication of the opening movement, "Leidenschaftlich bewegt" (Passionately agitated), accurately describes the mood of the main theme and the writing exhibits considerable chromaticism. A fugue brings the movement to close. The large second movement, "Langsam mit Ausdruck" (Slow with expression), is elegiac. This is followed by a fine scherzo ("Mäßig Bewegt," in moderate tempo), which is in fact a quick waltz. The finale "In maßiger, ruhiger Bewegung - Thema mit Variationen" (Moderate and peaceful, theme and variations) is the longest of the four movements and begins with a charming but simple melody which is varied twelve times. d'Albert develops delightful structures, amazing in their variety. Although some influence of Brahms and Liszt can be felt, d'Albert develops his own language and gives numerous examples of his stylistic ability.
Recording listened to: Sarastro Quartet on Pan Classics (with Second Quartet).

14. Théodore Gouvy, String Quartet in G Major (1888)
My other posts about chamber music have shown that I am an admirer of the chamber works of the French composer Théodore Gouvy (1819-1898), who mostly worked in Germany and paired French esprit to German form (see his Piano Trio, Piano Quintet and String Quintet). His music is always a joy to hear and that is also the case with his unpublished last quartet in G Major, one of the best he wrote (among eleven: four early unnumbered ones 1848-50, five numbered ones, 1858-74, and again two late unnumbered ones, one in G Minor and on in G Major, both written in 1888). The last quartet in G is a big-boned work. The first movement starts with an introductory Andante, where the strings echo through the air, before the Allegro moderato follows with its charm and evocation. It is in free sonata form and without any excess or overdone effects it creates a delicious atmosphere with some bucolic accents. The Larghetto is in variation form and takes its inspiration from a passacaglia with its basso ostinato. The Scherzo is extremely fast and voluble, a long serpent of a movement. The final Allegro non troppo is in rondo form, with a recurring main theme that reminds one of a gentle classical dance. This is graceful, well-balanced, poetical and, ultimately, happy music. Unfortunately, since the demise of the label K617, Gouvy's chamber music is almost unavailable today - when will for example CPO (which has recorded the symphonies) start paying attention to it?
Recording listened to: Quatuor Denis Clavier on K617 (with String Quintet Op 55).

15. César Franck, String Quartet in D Major (1889-90)
The string quartet by César Franck (1822-90) is one of his last works - like Fauré, he hesitated long before he found the courage to put his hand to this supreme musical form. As early as the 1870s, when the Société Nationale de Musique, which Franck joined as one of the founding members, was set up to promote French chamber music, Franck had already contemplated a quartet, but came no further than making some sketches. These sketches were again taken up in the late 1880s, after undertaking an intense study of the late works of Beethoven. The String Quartet was finally composed in 1889, the year before Franck's death. The richly scored work consists of four movements, which are tightly united by cyclic form. The nobility of the thematic material is given expression in the radiant key of D Major. The first movement, which gave Franck a lot of trouble, begins with a long introduction. Against a harmonic accompaniment by the other strings, the first violin plays the main theme of the introduction, which is also the first cyclic theme. The Allegro that follows is in sonata form, but leads to a development in the form of a fugue, introduced by the viola. The second movement, Scherzo vivace, is colored by Mendelssohnian lightness and the strings are muted here. The lyrical, even languorous Larghetto is in ternary form and features an extended melody for the first violin . The Finale revisits the major themes of the previous movements (the slow movement and the scherzo), before deriving its own theme from the introductory material to the first movement, thus uniting the whole work. Franck need not have hesitated: this quartet forms a crowning achievement to his whole oeuvre.
Recording listened to: Ensemble César Franck on Koch Schwann.


16. Claude Debussy, String Quartet in G Minor (1893)
Debussy's (1862-1918) sole string quartet is a stunning work, a watershed in the history of chamber music. It stands at the threshold of Debussy's career and also at the threshold of the new music that the new century was to bring - where Franck and Fauré hesitated until their final years before addressing this exacting genre, Debussy confidently wrote his String Quartet when he was just thirty. The quartet is already fully characteristic of Debussy's typical musical language, with its use of modal and whole-tone scales, subtle harmonies and clarity of form. The four movements are thematically related, a way of bringing greater unity to multi-part symphonic and chamber music that had been devised by César Franck (see No 15). The first movement is off to a stormy start with a strong opening statement, that will also punctuate the movement later on. This opening phrase returns in varied form in the scherzo (first playfully and then more smoothly) and again, more drastically altered, in the slow movement; and finally as the lyrical subsidiary theme of the finale. The transformations are so subtly achieved, that the music sounds completely seamless, and the kaleidoscopic effect of the new contexts in which the familiar motif is placed prevents any danger of monotony. The Scherzo is dominated by the viola theme with which it opens. The sensuous slow movement has been said to prefigure the Symbolist world of Pelléas et Mélisande. The final movement opens in contrapuntally angular fashion, and quotes several themes from previous movements, before ending on a grand chord.
Recording listened to: Orlando Quartet on Philips (with String Quartet by Ravel).

17. Louis Vierne, String Quartet in D Minor Op 12 (1894)
Louis Vierne (1870-1937) was a celebrated organist and organ and chamber music composer. Born almost blind, he later lost his sight completely. He studied with Widor and Franck, both whose influence was decisive on his own compositions; we already came across his Piano Quintet written in dramatic circumstances. His String Quartet shows a lighter side. It was written at the time that Vierne was still in Widor's class and received the first prize for organ. The quartet is dedicated to Widor. Although an early work, Vierne's art blossoms forth in rich harmonies and the quartet already bears the stamp of his distinctive style. After a dramatic introduction, the ensuing Allegro agitato is essentially based on syncopation, with two motifs following the same melodic curve. The Intermezzo has been called "one of the most delicious movements in all French chamber music," in the spirit of Berlioz's "Queen Mab Scherzo." The first half, using mutes, is bouncing, the second half more lyrical. The Andante quasi adagio contains two contrasting ideas, the first one subtly chromatic, the second one more nervous, disturbing the serenity of the movement. The Allegro vivace finale features a gently lulling theme in moto perpetuo style, but before the conclusion, in Bach-like spirit, a strict fugue opens out.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Athenaeum Enesco on Disques Pierre Verany (with piano quintet).

18. Antonín Dvořák, String Quartet No 14 in A Flat Major Op 105 B193 (1895)
Antonín Dvořák wrote 14 string quartets, but the only one that is regularly programmed seems to be the 12th, the "American," as if listeners always want to hear the same music. But his two last quartets, 13 and 14, are much more interesting, and among the earlier quartets are also some jewels, such as No 10. The String Quartet No 14 in A-flat major was the last quartet completed by Dvořák, even though it was published before his Thirteenth Quartet (which appeared with the higher opus number 106). Dvořák finished it in 1895, when he had returned to Bohemia after his visit to America. It was his last "abstract" chamber work, as from now on he would focus on symphonic poems and operas. The quartet starts with a mysterious introduction, played on the cello, before the other instruments join in. The first violin then continues with the limpid main theme (Allegro appassionato). The second subject features a distinctive rhythm constructed around a succession of triplets. The music boasts a wealth of ideas, which undergo various modifications even in the exposition. The middle section of the first movement evokes a serenade, followed by a march. The second movement, Molto vivace, is in scherzo form. The Trio is a poetic romance. The lyrical Lento e molto cantabile begins as a gently fervent chorale. This movement represents a wonderful arc of tranquility and contentment, with  a very rich sound. The final Allegro non tanto begins with somber and oppressed phrases from the cello before evolving quickly into a completely contrasting joyful Czech folk dance (in polka style). Dvorak gradually enhances the joyous tone of the movement, so that the work ends in dazzlingly euphoric tones. In this final quartet Dvorak gave his very best, demonstrating his great artistry in chamber music.
Recording listened to: Le Quatuor Talich on Calliope (with quartet No 13).



19. Anton Stepanovich Arensky, String Quartet No 2 in A Minor Op 35 (1895)
Anton Arensky (1861-1906) was born in Novgorod but grew up and studied at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg. Among his principal teachers was Rimsky-Korsakov. Immediately after graduation, he himself became Professor at the Moscow Conservatory where he befriended and was influenced by Tchaikovsky and Taneyev. Among his pupils were Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Gliere. In 1895, Arensky returned to St. Petersburg to become director of the Imperial Chapel, before retiring six years later to devote himself to composition. Unfortunately, he died at the young age of 45. Arensky was a fluent composer who excelled in singing melodic lines and had a keen sense of instrumental color. He wrote two symphonies, concertos for violin and for piano, three operas, and chamber and piano music. His Second Quartet was composed in 1895 to the memory of Tchaikovsky, who had died two years earlier. For extra dark sonority, the original version is for violin, viola and two cellos, but Arensky also made a version for normal string quartet. The first movement (Moderato) opens and closes with the muted theme of a Russian Orthodox psalm. This theme is both tender and passionate and is elaborated in the course of the movement; its funereal atmosphere exploits the deep sonority offered by the unusual scoring. The second movement is a theme and (seven) variations, based on the song "Legend" from Tchaikovsky's Children's Songs Op 54, as a personal tribute to his friend and mentor. This large and skillfully written movement is the center of gravity of the quartet. The variations wander through several modes, also lighter ones, but end again on a somber plaint. The Finale is quite unusual: it opens with the somber theme from a Russian funeral Mass, which however soon gives way to a celebratory anthem associated with the coronation and majesty of the Tsar and previously used by Mussorgsky in Boris Godounov. This is the highest tribute to Tchaikovsky, crowning his heritage for posterity. The central movement, arranged for string orchestra, also has an independent life as the Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky.
Recording listened to: Lajtha Quartet on Marco Polo (with First String Quartet and Piano Quintet).

20. George Whitefield Chadwick, String Quartet No 4 in E Minor (1895-96)
George Chadwick (1854-1931) has been called "the Dean of American Composers." He studied at the Leipzig Conservatory with Carl Reinecke and Salomon Jadassohn, and also took private lessons with Joseph Rheinberger in Munich. After his return to Boston in 1880, began his long career as a composer, conductor and teacher (of such important American composers as William Grant Still and Horatio Parker). Chadwick served for 33 years as director of the New England Conservatory. His Brahmsian blend of formal classicism with romantic melodism never could wholly conceal an unmistakably Yankee sense of humor. As the present quartet (the fourth of in total five, and his most popular chamber music work) shows, his music sounds very "American," although he never literally quotes any folk or other traditional tunes. The work opens with a calm ballade-like introduction, Andante moderato, that quickly gives way to an Allegro with a snappy first theme and a graceful, songful hymn-influenced second one. The slow movement is a serene Andantino semplice, at once simple, as the title suggests, but with great lyric beauty. The zestful Scherzo features a bubblingly cheerful first theme, while the Trio is more earnest in tone. The ballade-like Finale Allegro molto risoluto opens with a powerful unisono theme but also includes more poetic and retrospective passages, before winding up with an exhilarating fugato and a brilliant Presto con brio.
Recording listened to: The Kohon Quartet on Vox ("The Early String Quartet in the U.S.A.," two CDs with string quartet music by Loeffler, Mason, Hadley, Foote etc.).

21. Charles Ives, String Quartet No 1 "From the Salvation Army" (1896)
Charles Ives wrote his First Quartet when he was 21 and a student at Yale and it is interesting to compare this to Chadwick's contemporaneous quartet (No 20 above). It is a tonal quartet based on church hymns, written in what is called Ives' "national Romantic style." The first movement (Andante con moto) is a stately fugue based on Missionary Hymn ("From Greenland's Icy Mountains"), while the counter-subject is drawn from Coronation ("All hail the powers of Jesus' name"). This piece is also found as the third movement of Ives' Fourth Symphony, arranged for full orchestra. It is somewhat different in tone from the rest of the quartet. The remaining movements are all in modified ternary form. In the cheerful second movement (Allegro) the first theme is based on the hymn Beulah Land, and that of the contrasting middle section on Shining Shore - two hymns that look forward to the afterlife. Although both songs have been so completely reworked as to be almost unrecognizable, they possess a strong American and hymn-like character. The theme of the meditative third movement (Adagio cantabile) is based on the hymn Nettleton ("Come thou fount of every blessing"). The middle section draws themes from all three hymns. The spirited opening theme of the finale (Allegro marziale) blends motives from Coronation and Webb ("Stand up, stand up for Jesus"). In this movement, we find one of Ives' first uses of poly-meter: 3/4 over 4/4 time. In the coda we hear a complete statement of Webb in the cello. The recurrence in later movements of earlier material gives unity to the quartet, and the appearance of a complete hymn at the end after fragments and paraphrases provides a satisfying conclusion. A work of individuality and charm. In 1913 Ives finished his very different Second Quartet, in which he in a sense spoofs the Haydn quartet form, by not having "four gentlemen in conversation," but "four men who argue and fight," and finally "walk up the mountain."
Recording listened to: Emerson String Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon (with Second Quartet by Ives and String Quartet by Barber)

22. Alexander Glazunov, String Quartet No 5 in D Minor Op 70 (1898)
Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) was born in St. Petersburg, the son of a wealthy book publisher, who also played the violin; his mother was a pianist. Glazunov studied under Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev and wrote his First Symphony when only 16 years old. Between 1895 and 1914, Glazunov was regarded as Russia's greatest living composer. He is best known today for his nine symphonies (the last one unfinished), a violin concerto, and the ballet Raymonda. Glazunov also earned a high reputation as teacher/director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory - his most famous pupil was Shostakovich. Glazunov wrote seven string quartets, plus the melodious Five Novelettes. The Fifth Quartet is generally considered as one of Glazunov's masterpieces of chamber music. The first movement's doleful, fugal introduction (Andante), initiated by the viola, immediately establishes the quartet's emotional depth. The movement proceeds in sonata form (Allegro), with the fugal subject from the introduction now serving as the first theme. The second subject, marked dolce, is initially entrusted to the first violin. The movement ends in a magnificent stretto. The Scherzo (Allegretto) is jaunty, but draws on quite complex textures. The movement's Trio section is memorable for its lilting melody over a pizzicato accompaniment. The profound third movement returns to the serious mood of the first; it contains a characteristic "sighing" motif. After a distinctive opening, the Finale (Allegro) proceeds with a moto perpetuo first theme. This bright and even playful movement is again in sonata form. Despite its occasional counterpoint, it also contains a hint of folksiness.
Recording listened to: St. Petersburg String Quartet on Delos (with Five Novelettes).

23. Max D'Ollone, String Quartet in D Major (1898)
The French composer Max d'Ollone (1875-1959) entered the Paris Conservatiore at age 6 when he already started composing with the encouragement of his teachers Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Thomas and Delibes. He won the Prix de Rome in 1897. He would have a career as professor at the Paris Conservatoire and director of the Opéra-Comique. As composer, he was in the first place known for his operas, but also for a ballet and symphonic works. Songs also formed an important part of his output. His three chamber works stand at strategic spots in his career: the String Quartet at the beginning, the String Trio in the middle and the Piano Quartet at the end of his catalog. The String Quartet was composed in 1898 during Max d'Ollone's stay in Rome. Written in the bright key of D Major, the first and last movements present themes full of joyfulness, while the chromatic Andante is imbued with tender melancholy. The Scherzo, the second movement, is in the form of a moto perpetuo. This is a beautiful quartet in which d'Ollone demonstrates gracefulness and naturalness along the lines of Massenet and Saint-Saëns.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Atheneaum Enesco on Disques Pierre Verany (with String Trio and Piano Quartet).

24. Camille Saint-Saëns , String Quartet Nr 1 in E Minor Op 112 (1899)
The French composer, organist, pianist and conductor Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) had very broad interests, both inside and outside music (he was for example interested in archaeology, geometry, and Latin and ancient Greek). This led him to be active in all musical genres, from piano music to symphonies, from operas to religious vocal works, from concertante works to chamber music. His best-known works include the Second Piano Concerto (1868), the First Cello Concerto (1872), Danse macabre (1874), the opera Samson and Delilah (1877), the Third Violin Concerto (1880), the Third ("Organ") Symphony (1886) and The Carnival of the Animals (1887). But I prefer his chamber music, such as the piano trios, piano quintets, violin sonatas, cello sonatas and string quartets. In that last genre, Saint-Saëns didn’t attempt his first quartet until 1899, at the ripe old age of 64 (he wrote his Second Quartet in 1918 when he was 83!). Saint-Saëns' music is imbued with a French spirit and feeling for form, but is also very classical - not in the sense of Beethoven, but going back all the way to Bach. Some movements have a Baroque feel, that seems to prefigure the post-WWI trend of Neo-Classical music. The opening movement (Allegro) begins with muted sustained notes before the first violin states the principal theme (the first violin dominates in this quartet, not for nothing was it dedicated to the famous violinist Eugen Ysaye, whose quartet premiered it). This dissolves into more nervous music, from which suddenly the cello comes up with a wonderful lyrical melody. The second movement, Molto allegro quasi presto, starts with a syncopated melody in the first violin, accompanied by the plucked notes of the other instruments. It is then repeated at the same tempo but with shorter notes, so that it sounds twice as fast. The Trio section contains a fugue, started by the cello. Also the slow movement (Molto Adagio) gives prominence to the first violin, playing a long-lined, wistful melody. The finale, Allegro non troppo, offers further scope for virtuosity, but its use of varied rhythms also creates an underlying sense of restlessness.
Recording listened to: Koeckert-Quartett on Calig (with String Quartet by Grieg).

[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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