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The name of the Norwegian composer Kjell Habbestad is new to me. I hoped to react to his music as I did to Ketil Hvoslef’s work, which I also met on Lawo discs, and – on first hearing – I liked it. Born in Bømlo in 1955, Habbestad is Professor of Music Theory and Composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, the institute from which he himself graduated after studying church music and composition. He has composed works in most genres, including four operas, oratorios and instrumental music. That has led to about a dozen recordings, which I will look to investigate in the near future.
Habbestadt explains the title of the First String Quartet, Quattro Stazioni, as “four stations of my journey as a composer”, and notes that it can easily represent each of the works on the disc: the four stages, approaches and stylistic expression. He describes this quartet as a musical journey with differing aspects of the music he discovered on his travels. This is clear from the outset, in the opening of the first movement. A drone-like sound, often used to underpin the Middle Eastern and Israeli music, is a unique start to any string quartet. The other movements show various influences; the final stazione is based on themes from Hardanger.
The Second Quartet, the newest work on this disc, has a different tonal language, almost late-romantic at times. The impetus comes from poetry; Habbestad’s “intention here is not to tell a story or to convey an extra-musical message”. He says that just as good songs begin with the text, so the quartet is based upon the text of the song which then has its words removed. This leads to a work more melodic than the First Quartet. The result bis quite dramatic, especially as the music is developed from the original ideas.
The third work and station, Air d’été suédois, sees another literary theme. The title refers to August Strindberg’s short story ‘I midsommartider’ (In Midsummer Days). Excerpts from the original text are provided to illustrate the context of the music. Again, this fifteen-minute work is lyrical and melodic. The clarinet at times provides the melody, whilst the string quartet gives the creative spark at others, with both feeding of the other. The result is an enjoyable and interesting piece of music.
The fourth station, Divertimento, is the only piece not to include a string quartet, which is replaced by the piano. In some ways this is the most modern-sounding of the four works, yet it is still approachable and interesting, especially in the way that Habbestad develops sonata form as the work progresses.
The composer says: “These four stations have played major roles in my work as a composer; indeed, all four are important elements of the music I write today.” It is interesting and impressive, strongly melodic, and not at all frightening.
The performances are excellent, especially the playing of the Vertavo String Quartet. In the First Quartet in particular, they are called on to produce some wonderful effects. Björn Nyman and Sveinung Bjelland have an important role to play, and both acquit themselves very well indeed. The splending performances are backed up with Lawo’s usual excellent sound, which helps the listener get the most from these works. The booklet notes are fine. The composer’s contribution is a real boon to understanding his intent in his music. This is a disc and indeed, a composer, who on this evidence is well worth investigating.