When a composer embarks on the writing of a string quartet, let alone a series, he or she is stepping into a vat, as it were, of musical history and here, as I know from personal experience, one needs to ask, ‘what can I contribute to this form that will be different from everyone else?’ Dag Wirén composed several quartets as a youngster, then wrote what he thought would be his first but later withdrew it (as he did with his 1st Symphony), leaving us with the four quartets as recorded here.
Interestingly, Wirén wrote the Swedish entry for the dreaded Eurovision song contest in 1965. It’s worth hearing, as it is more like Richard Rogers on an off-day than Dag Wirén. His best-known piece is probably the Serenade for Strings. For a while, in the 60’s and 70’s, the BBC used it for its Monitor programme. It reflects the easy, rhythmic, fresh outdoor atmosphere that permeates Wirén’s early works and it also appears in the first two quartets presented in this disc.
It is arguably best for a composer to write a quartet just once a decade, meaning as the composer matures and gains life and music experience, the works should develop in the same way. Wirén did just that with ten years between the first two quartets, then eight and finally a very telling seventeen before he wrote the last one. Not only his progress as an artist is clear but his look on life also shows.
The 2ndQuartet, which is just his Opus 9, is engaging. It begins with a Theme and Variations – the kind of thing a student might attempt except that by now Wirén is thirty years of age and able to use the form in a very personal way. He follows this start with a short scherzo and a light-hearted finale, which is a happy juxtaposition of folksy-jig like material. It repeats as a kind of rondo and an almost hymnal second subject. The 3rdQuartet does not move the language much further but there are four movements, with a more expanded second marked Andante-Vivace-Allegretto, before a fleeting scherzo and mercurial finale. These are exceedingly well-crafted and enjoyable works; the sort of pieces that attract but do not stretch the listener’s attention too far.
Whereas the above two quartets are largely diatonic and melodic, the 4thQuartet progresses things a lot further. Richard Whitehouse in his usual, rather helpful notes tells us that the quartets run “in parallel with the symphonies”, which means that more chromatic elements are introduced into the harmonies and indeed into the themes and general material. Second, we now have five movements with two short, contrasting Intermezzi that constitute movements two and three, a larger variety of technical challenges – just listen to the bounding opening fifth movement (Allegro molto) – and widely spaced, atmospheric chords, as at the start of the work, and again in the finale. There is no doubt this work, as apparently also the 4th symphony, marks a kind of belated coming of age for Wirén. Of all the quartets, this is the one that deserves the most attention.
The 5thQuartet feels as if overflowing with the composer’s life experiences. To quote Whitehouse, “the easy confidence of those earlier pieces [are] now beyond recovery”. The 5th reverts to three movements though the slow middle one is abruptly disturbed by a very brief scherzo, before returning to its rather unsettled Andante espressivo. The opening Allegro molto is searching in its harmony and similarly the final Allegro that offers “a sense of withdrawal in the face of hostile gestures”.
These works will prove rewarding with ample, repeated listening. The excellent recording is spacious and clear. The performances by the Swedish group, the Wirén Quartet, are natural and obviously demonstrate a true understanding of the composer and his idiom. The Wirén Quartet was founded over fifteen years ago. It does feel as if they have lived with these works for some considerable part of that period. And so, I think now it’s time to explore the Wirén symphonies.
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