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Complete String Quartets - Volume 1
String Quartet No. 5, Step by Step (1982-1986, rev. 2003) [18:52]
String Quartet No. 1, Andante (1959) [8:26]
String Quartet No. 6, Parting (1983) [12:46]
String Quartet No. 3, Five Small Studies (1959) [4:42]
String Quartet No. 4 (1967) [6:07]
String Quartet No. 2, Quartetto Facile (1959) [11:44]
Nordic String Quartet
rec. 2017/18, Concert Hall, the Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen
DACAPO 8.226217 [62:39]

The Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s CD by the LIN Ensemble (Dacapo 8.224225) contains the outrageously funny Plateaux pour deux for cello and tuned car horns. The disc shows his whimsical side and his development as a composer; the wonderful Passacaglia are a high point. His strikingly modern music ranges from works inspired by the Second Viennese School, through Bartók and Messiaen, to his own personal style. He composed fourteen string quartets, the first three in quick succession in 1959, his final ones in 2013, just three years before his death.

I will write about the works in chronological order rather than in the sequence on this disc. The single-movement String Quartet No. 1, an eight-minute Andante, explores serialism and in particular the “harmonic implications of a twelve-tone row”. This compelling first essay in the genre promises a great deal. The String Quartet No. 2 presents the same thematic material in each of the four movements. The opening Andantino begins slowly with plucked strings before the cello enters and changes the whole feel of the movement, its melody punctuated with short sharp bowed notes from the rest of the players. This is followed with the scherzo-like Allegretto, before the stark entry of the third movement Andante which shows the composer’s indebtedness to Bartók. The fourth movement, the brightest, shows good development of the thematic material. The final of 1959 pieces is the String Quartet No. 3 subtitled ‘Five Small Studies’. As the name suggests, these are five movements, some very short, ranging from 17 seconds to 1 minute 3 seconds. There is a definite feel of Webern in these Studies, especially his Six Bagatelles for String Quartet Op. 9.

It was eight years before Gudmundsen-Holmgreen took to writing another string quartet, his 4th. It was inspired by a visit to Greece, and the nonstop chirping of the cicadas. This six-minute work is a sort of perpetuum (i)mobile. The humming and chirping of the strings does not really get anywhere. It depicts the draining of the energy of the composer due to the incessant noise of the insects during the hot sunny Greek days and nights. The Nordic String Quartet show great control: they hold their line well, with only a change towards the end of the piece.

The Fifth String Quartet seems to have had a troubled gestation. It was composed in 1982, and continually tinkered with until the final version came out in 1986. Even then Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was not happy. He revised the piece again in 2003, and this final version is recorded here. The result is classic Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. The strong sense of purpose and motion reminds me of the works on that other Dacapo disc. The quartet’s title ‘Step by Step’ refers to how the music moves forward, from the use of a tonal grid in the energetic opening of the piece, through its various stages, and to the gloomy conclusion. The longest of the quartets presented here, it rightly gains the greatest share of the excellent booklet notes by Steen Pade. It is the most compelling piece on this disc. The notes comment on this, and place the Quartet in the composer’s musical development, whilst relating his music to the writing of Samuel Beckett, whom Gudmundsen-Holmgreen had come to appreciate.

The Sixth Quartet comes from the same period as the Fifth. It was composed in 1983 at the end of the first thoughts on the 5th Quartet before Gudmundsen-Holmgreen began to revise the work. This work employs the same tonal key as its predecessor. It also contains many contrasting sections and thematic material, from controlled bouncing of the bow on the strings, though its energetic outbursts and its periods of almost silence. The title ‘Parting’ seems to come from the way the final energetic outburst is then echoed, gradually getting quieter until the music fades away into nothing. A wonderful piece.

This is a fine disc of modern string quartet music by a composer who should be better known. It has certainly inspired me to seek out more of his music, and I cannot wait for volume two of this series to come out.

The members of the Nordic String Quartet come from three Nordic countries. They formed the ensemble only in 2013, but they do not sound it. The playing is taut, and the sense of ensemble is great. They rise to all that Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music demands. They can be dramatic and belligerent when required, and also soft, tender and controlled in the more subdued passages. The recording is excellent, with a fairly natural sound that brings the best out of the music. The informative and detailed booklet notes round out this highly desirable and recommendable disc.

Stuart Sillitoe

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