My Favorite 20th Century String Quartet Cycles, Part 2

Gian Francesco Malipiero

Malipiero wrote eight quartets of notable consistency and quality. This is a fascinating cycle of quartets, but it’s unlike any other I’ve heard when it comes to trying to analyze these works. This music is anthematic, song-like and intensely lyrical. It certainly has recurring themes throughout, but it follows no easily deciphered forms like sonata form or “theme and variation” form. Motifs do recur but the overall _flow_ is what moves the music, not the motifs themselves. Nothing stays around too long, fast and slow sections alternate and lead into one another, the material is constantly morphing, organically bringing forth variations or fragments of themes, and often flowering new material seemingly out of nowhere. My favorites would be the first, third, fifth and sixth. The overall tone or mood reminds me very much of Villa-Lobos; it has that chipper, nimble, polyphonic quality and overall sunny mood. Repeated listens would help in appreciating these free-flowing works, and sometimes it’s easier to follow recurring beat patterns rather than looking for familiar themes.

Ernst Krenek

Krenek wrote eight, but I found the cycle not very consistent. I enjoyed most of these quartets, and they’re challenging listening at times. I would consider the early quartets to be the best, and the 2nd to be the most interesting of all. The final quartet unfortunately didn’t hold my interest in the least.

The first is a very impressive first quartet, very much a series of variations of the opening theme. There’s plenty of variety here, lots of fugal moments and quite a bit of dense polyphony. The musical variety is vast, but the mood doesn’t change quite as much. The second quartet; my GOD what a crazy piece of music this is. It feels like he’s really pushing the boundaries here, a very intense work, has to be heard to be believed. All three movements have moments of wild, crazy tension and thick counterpoint that just made me say, “DAMN!” There’s a lot going on, lots of variety, but what’s so impressive is the counterpoint. This is edgy music, it always threatens to surge up and out of control. Krenek takes a theme, variations ensue, and then he pushes it to strained, shrill, swirling heights. The third quartet is a decent work, but it’s not as entertaining as the first two. The slow movements in particular can just drift and feel elusive. The fourth quartet is an improvement over the third, but can’t equal the interest of the first two. Here we get seven movements, the first and last are quite good, the third is good, but doesn’t really go anywhere.

The fifth is one of his best. It has a coherence about it that’s impressive and it’s quite complex as well. It’s easy to get lost in the material, and you know what you’re hearing relates to the opening material, but you’re not always sure how. At the same time it’s never dry and pedantic, but beautiful, exciting and interesting throughout. The sixth is a fairly atonal work, emotionally elusive, colorful but not one I’d rush to revisit. The fast movements are full of quirky, disjointed fragments that somehow create thick polyphony; the long adagio is more spare, and simple. The seventh is a lot like the sixth, elusive, nothing here really catches or excites me. The eighth was commissioned by the NEA, and I really don’t think they got their money’s worth. This quartet is more dissonant, experimental, avant-garde, and is my least favorite by far. I had to force myself to sit through it. I just never develops, it’s more concerned with throwing phrases out, some weird effects, then stopping on a dime.

Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich wrote fifteen quartets, what has been called one of the best quartet cycles of the 20th century. I’ve been listening to these works on and off for the last decade or so. My favorites of this cycle would be 3, 5, 7, 8 and 13, and none of them leave me cold or disinterested. Shostakovich was quite talented in writing heart-achingly sad music, and this is showcased very well in his chamber works. As this cycle goes along it tends to get darker, and the final three quartets in particular are brooding, dark, and increasingly introspective. The fast movements of these works are rarely meant to dazzle, such as is found in the frenzied, dense quartets of Robert Simpson, but these have more memorable melodies and themes. They also contain a sardonic, ironic wit to them and a very clear, communicative emotional language.

The first quartet is a decent start, but isn’t anything special and lacks the depth that would show up in later works. With the second quartet Shostakovich really did himself in, it’s one of the longest in the cycle full of rewarding, memorable moments, lots of passion, emotion and variation. The third is very memorable for its increasingly feisty movements, and then it’s final, despairing ones. The fourth has moments which aren’t exactly elusive, but are a bit ambiguous. The second movement however is quite emotive and the finale has a little of everything. The fifth is a really great work. The first movement has a lot going on with three themes to keep up with. The finale really ties everything together however.

The sixth isn’t a flashy work; it’s purposeful, lyrical and emotional. The third movement in particular packs quite a punch. The seventh is a short, playful work, performed in about 12 minutes and is full of memorable material. I’d say this is a good introduction to his chamber works. The eighth is one of his most popular works and perhaps the best-known quartet of the last century. That’s saying something considering the work is incredibly depressing and literally leaves no light at the end. I think its appeal is that it’s such an emotionally draining ride and easy to clue into. The ninth has a lot of good, catchy, memorable material and contains some of his best fast quartet writing. The final movement is lengthy and explosive. The tenth is one of Shostakovich’s most good-humored quartets. This isn’t one of his better-known and it can be somewhat emotionally ambiguous at times but it offers much of interest, and like the 7th quartet I would say this is also a good introduction to his quartets.

The eleventh is a fun work in seven movements; it can feel like little develops at times because the movements are so short. The twelfth has a final movement which offers some of Shostakovich’s most dense, complex quartet writing and is certainly impressive for that alone. I think this is certainly one of the more difficult quartets and one would take some warming up to, but I like it. The thirteenth is in one movement and follows an ABCBA format with a coda and is pretty easy to follow, but is abrasive and elusive on its face. This is certainly one of his darkest works and I think it’s been among my favorites since I first heard it. The fourteenth is dedicated to a cellist and features the cello prominently throughout. Complex, but not abrasive like the one’s before and after it. The final quartet is a very dark work, some parts of this are so dark they somehow feel “unsafe” as if they reveal too much about death. This music can really sneak up on you because there’s just so much anguish here. The music is usually spare, austere. The first and last movements are impressive, the first for its emotion, the last for its variety. The middle movements are all a bit more quirky.

Silvestre Revueltas

This is a short cycle of four quartets which are about 10, 11, 13 and 9 minutes each respectively.  They fit easily on one CD, with lots of room to spare! These are brief but “full” works, full of variety and color, very fluid in changing tempo and mood and have a definite feel similar to the quartets of Villa-Lobos. Themes often have two sections, a stark first part and a longer, more lyrical tail. These works require focus, there are some great moments but they’re often gone in the blink of an eye. It’s a shame he didn’t write more, with the last two it becomes apparent he has really gotten a good hold on the form.

The first definitely recalls Villa-Lobos to mind and is colorful and interesting throughout its brief 10 minutes, but isn’t overly memorable. The second is colorful, but like the first, this is a brief piece, and I’m not entirely sure I “get it” at times. It has some complexity to it and density, but it usually shifts between tempo before getting too deep. The third is the longest of the quartets at about 13 minutes and he makes use of every moment. There’s a lot of variety; the first movement is quick and fiery, but with time for slowness. The second is dark and mysterious, and the finale is the best, beginning fast but ultimately bringing some of the most beautiful slow music found in these quartets. The fourth is a great work in my opinion; I just wish Revueltas had written more. This also contains some very beautiful music. I think I liked the third just a bit better, but with these two it feels like he finally got a handle on the form.

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