My Favorite 20th Century String Quartet Cycles, Part 1

The two “big” quartet cycles of the 20th century are the fifteen of Shostakovich and six of Bartok. I’ve always preferred the former. I’ll discuss them in later posts, for now I want to cover some slightly more obscure cycles.

>>VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959) wrote 17, and I confess I think when he’s at his best his quartets are as good as those of Bartok or Shostakovich. Villa-Lobos can write a really good tune when he wants, but his music is always incredibly complex and intricate as well. Because of this it can be listened to and analyzed on different levels. Despite the complexity, the works are often very approachable and typically follow easily discernible forms (A-B-A is common). Perhaps it’s cliche, but it’s also true that his works seem to contain the fiery salsa of South America in them that I’ve heard in few other composers. Fast movements are full of vigorous rhythms with blisteringly fast themes, complex, dense polyphony and chipper, quick lines with wide ranges that rush up and down. His slow movements often have a folkish feel to them, they are consistently passionate and “earthy.” The color he pulls from a quartet is quite advanced, often employing quick pizzicato, chilly sul ponticello and many other techniques.

By his 3rd quartet I believe he had mastered the form. My favorites are 5-7, 9 and 14. His quartets 7-10 may be a bit dense or elusive compared with the others, but I think they’re among the most rewarding for the patient explorer.

The fifth contains a lot of beauty, is subtitled “Popular Quartet,” and indeed it does have fairly short, easily digestible movements. This is a good introduction to this cycle. The sixth is not as great as the beautiful fifth or impressive as the seventh, but it’s a personal favorite of mine. I love the first and especially the final movements. The seventh might be his best quartet, it’s also the longest and one of the most challenging. It has a little of everything and overflows with ideas, but a couple listens proves it a fairly rewarding work to grapple with. The ninth is challenging like the seventh, perhaps more so. His fast movements are the star as usual, I think the seventh is a bit better however. The fourteenth is in Villa-Lobos’ later period and is simpler than quartets 7-9, but to me it recalls that middle period. However it’s not as long or involved. What impresses me particularly is the opening material of the movements appears so strange on first hearing that you can hardly guess where he intends to take it.

I’d recommend the recording by the Cuarteto Latinoamericano. I have two other cycles, by the Danubius and the Bessler-Reis quartets, which are both good, but they don’t achieve the intensity and energy of the Cuarteto Latinoamericano in my opinion.

>>DIAMOND (1915-2005) wrote 10, his early quartets have a clear emotional language and are easy to follow, but some of his later ones just “drift” at times. My favorites would be 2-4, 7 and 10. The 3rd is his best, achingly beautiful and emotional, very memorable. The 4th is also interesting for it’s dazzling technical display.

The 1st is a decent first quartet and better to my ears than some of his later quartets (6, 8, 9). It has some emotional moments and impressive polyphonic razzle-dazzle, but nothing here catches me too much. The 2nd has two very emotive first movements, and a great, complex finale. The 3rd is his most approachable and his best. The first and third movements are very good, catchy but complex. The finale is a long, achingly sad adagio dedicated to a friend who died and it is among the best music Diamond ever wrote. The 4th has to be his most complicated quartet. This is as close to sun-gazing as you can get without going blind. You can get lost in the music, it’s dazzling, enthralling and exhausting. The key to it is watching for variations on the main themes, but a deep analysis of this music would be worthless, it’s better to just let the complexity and emotion of it wash over oneself. With the 5th quartet we start to get into the dryer, more academic, emotionally elusive style that characterizes his later quartets. Still this quartet is passionate, crafty, densely complex with a lot of variety and technical display. The 6th is my least favorite, it has two movements which are rather similar and just seem to drift with little variation in mood or tempo, the second movement is a bit more interesting than the first. I like the 7th quartet, despite the fact that it’s sandwiched between two I dislike. It’s nothing like his approachable earlier works, but it has a lot of variety and color, and the finale movement has a very nice, lengthy, complex fugue. The 8th has a lot of “drifting” like the sixth, the first two movements are slow, the final one is fast and a bit more interesting. The 9th is in one movement, it’s better than the sixth but the second theme of the work is just too unmemorable to recall and differentiate throughout and I get a bit lost in it. Also, too much slow music, not enough variety. I like the 10th, no endless drifting here, just good, memorable, lively material. The first two movements are often vigorous and the finale has a nice extended fugue.

>>SIMPSON (1921-1997) wrote 15 quartets, and I would say his music is often (not always) music that’s more of the head than the heart. It is the most complex string quartet cycle I’ve ever heard and what is most impressive is the lengthy fast movements which keep up tension for far longer than most other composers. Simpson is good at taking an innocent or bland theme and intensifying it into something quite manic. His slow movements are no less interesting because his emotional language isn’t always obvious. It can take time to warm up to these works, sometimes listening to them feels like doing calculus. These aren’t short works either, several border on 3/4 of an hour in length! The powerful 9th runs an intimidating full hour.

Simpson can be very modern, abrasive, loud and bitter, but always interesting. I would say his best quartets are the 5th, 6th, 9th, 11th and 14th.

The first quartet is as competent as any of the later works, easy to understand, but still has a lot to unpack and hear. The second is in one movement and utilizes three themes but it’s still easy to follow. Short and sweet for Simpson at a mere 15 minutes. The third doesn’t catch my attention very much. It has two movements, and the first just seems to “drift” with a rather somber feel, the second is fast and dense. I found the fourth quartet to be one of the most challenging — there’s lots of sonata forms used with subtly different themes to keep up with. The fifth is very impressive and long. The first movement feels shorter than it is, while the slow second feels a bit too long, but has some very beautiful moments. The first and final movements require some obvious stamina from their players. The sixth is very impressive, the complexity of the finale is just unbelievable and the two inner-movements contain some of his more beautiful quartet writing. The seventh didn’t impress me very much, it’s a different work for Simpson where he tries to evoke the vastness of space. It has three movements, and I found the two outer ones far too sparse and simple. The eighth is a good work, the two outer movements are the most substantial, the finale is another good example of Simpson’s complex quartet writing, the brief second movement effectively evokes the flying of a mosquito. The ninth is his longest quartet, and is truly a masterpiece in my opinion. It’s a series of variations on a theme of Haydn, with a ton of variety, everything from blistering displays of counterpoint to tender moments. How it flows together so well is part of what makes it so amazing. Don’t let this one intimidate you, it’s actually quite approachable for the attentive listener ready for a wild ride. The tenth isn’t a bad work but it’s material doesn’t catch me too much, it does have some good emotive moments, and the finale is the star. The eleventh is one of my personal favorites, full of stern rhythms, wild polyphony and thorny modernism in the outer movements, and a more serene, nocturnal middle movement. The twelfth’s first movement is a bit drifting and simple at times, but the second is lengthy with much complexity and stamina. The thirteenth has four movements, all under six minutes each and doesn’t really stand out to me. The fourteenth is very good, while the fast movements are impressive as always, here the slow one is the star, like an emotional stream of consciousness. The fifteenth reminds me a bit of the 11th with it’s sustained moments of extreme aural violence, easy to follow and brief.

>>MACONCHY (1907-1994) wrote 13 often brief but impressive quartets. Maconchy was a British composer, but her works have an affinity for Bartok’s thorny modernism. Although she has some quartets that are better than others, I like each and every one of them. These works average 15-20 minutes, sometimes shorter, but there’s a lot packed into their short time spans. Maconchy says what she wants to say and moves on, so you feel you need to cherish each moment, which is easy to do because they maintain the interest throughout. These works are bold, abrasive, edgy, often violent and brazenly modern.

All of the quartets are good, but some that stand out would be the 5th, 6th, 7th and 11th. The fifth is a good place to start with these works, it maintains interest throughout it’s 17 minute span, has a good sense of structure and all the material is inspired by the music heard in the opening bars. The sixth is as good as any of the others, has a nice, passionate opening passacaglia movement. The seventh is approachable and has a mind-blowing pizzicato movement. The 11th is in one 15 minute movement, it’s like the 10th which is also in a single movement, but this one has more memorable material.

For Diamond, Simpson and Maconchy I can’t compare recordings because I only have one recording of each cycle (and to my knowledge there aren’t others.)

There’s so many other great cycles of the 20th century. Holmboe wrote 20, Schnittke wrote 4, Wellesz wrote 9, Miaskovsky wrote 13, Weinberg wrote 17, (Boris) Tchaikovsky wrote 6, and there’s many, many more.

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