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the victims of the New German School) – and he also wrote fine chamber music, including seven string quartets (an early unpublished one, three quartets published in 1843 and three published in 1849), written for his private quartet group - Lachner himself was a cellist.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)]
Posts about classical music include:
- Best Cello Concertos
- Best Cello Sonatas
- Best Works for Oboe
- Best Works for Viola
- Best Flute Concertos
- Unique Symphonies from the 19th Century
- Eccentric Symphonies by 20th Century Cult Composers (1) - Scriabin, Ives & Langaard
- Eccentric Symphonies from 20th Century Cult Composers (2) - Havergal Brian & Matthijs Vermeulen