NIELSEN, C.: String Quartets, Vol. 1 (Oslo Quartet) (Naxos: 8.553907)
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String Quartets(Complete) Volume 1
String Quartet in Eflat major, Op. 14
String Quartet in Fmajor, Op. 44
The Danish composer Carl Nielsen was born in 1865, the son of a painterand village musician in whose band he had his earliest musical experienceplaying the violin. In 1879, after learning to play the cornet, he joined amilitary orchestra at Odense and by 1884 had been able, with the help ofsponsors, to enter the Royal Danish Conservatory in Copenhagen as a student ofthe violin, piano and music theory. After graduation in 1886 his compositionsbegan to win a hearing, with a significant success in 1888 for his LittleSuite, scored for strings. The following year he became a violinist in theroyal chapel, broadening still further his musical experience and in particularhis knowledge of the music of Wagner, a subject of serious study for him inGermany in 1890. It was here that he began the first of his six symphonies,completed in 1892. The previous year had brought a visit to Paris and a meetingwith the sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen, whom he married, travelling togetherwith her to Italy, before the couple returned to Denmark in the summer.
Nielsen's work as a violinist in the royal chapel continued until 1905,when jealousies eased him out of his position. Now, however, there was agrowing demand for his services as a conductor, particularly of his own works,and in 1908 he succeeded Johan Svendsen as conductor at the Royal Theatre, aposition he held until 1914. His growing international reputation, particularlythrough his symphonies, led to invitations to conduct abroad, while at home hetook a leading part in the musical life of Denmark, teaching at the CopenhagenConservatory and later joining the governing body of that institution andserving the cause of national musical education. He died in 1931.
The leading Danish composer of his generation, Nielsen left, in additionto his six remarkable symphonies, two operas, concertos for violin and forclarinet and a number of other orchestral compositions. To choral works andsongs may be added a wind quintet, which enjoys continued popularity, threeviolin sonatas, a small quantity of music for the piano, a string quintet andfive completed string quartets. The first of these last, the String Quartet inD minor, completed in 1882, remained unpublished in the composer'slifetime, while the String Quartet in G minor, Opus 13, completed in1888, was revised ten years later. The String Quartet in F minor, Opus5, was written in 1890, to be followed in 1898 by the String Quartet inE flat major, Opus 14. A work for string quartet, Piacevolezza, Opus 19,written in 1906, was revised in 1919 as the String Quartet in F major,Opus 44.
The String Quartet inE flat major, Opus 14, was first performed in Copenhagen in May 1899 but thesubsequent loss of the manuscript necessitated a reconstruction, from memory,for performance in December 1900 and subsequent publication. The sonata-rondoform first movement is rich in invention, with a declamatory first subject anda second, introduced by the cello and marked molto tranquillo. There aremoments of intense excitement, rhythmic diversity and contrapuntal ingenuity asthe music takes its sweeping course. The slow movement seems about to start inthe key of A minor but soon finds security in E flat, its thematic statementunderpinned by a sustained note on the cello. The dotted rhythms of the centralsection of this ternary movement are introduced by the viola and it is thecello that returns with the principal theme, accompanied by the generally tripletrhythms of the violins. The third movement, broadly in the form of a scherzoand trio, is in C major. The gentle lilt of the opening gives way toan energetic Presto but subsides into the gently chromatic mood of theopening, when the Allegretto pastorale returns. The original key of Eflat major is stressed in the cheerful opening theme of the Finale, withits more chromatic second subject marked molto tranquillo. The centraldevelopment has a fascinating variety of musical material and is duly followedby an emphatic return of the first theme and the more chromatic second. Themovement ends with contrapuntal imitation of a motif from the principal themein a now familiar rhythm, leading to a decisive conclusion.
From time to time Nielsen was able to take refuge from the difficultiesof musical life in Copenhagen among friends at Fuglsang. It was there, in 1906,that he played through his new quartet, Piacevolezza, its original titletaken from the original characteristically descriptive direction at the head ofits first movement, Allegro piacevolo ed indolente, later replaced,after the revision of the work in 1919, by the more conventional and finallymore apt Allegro non tanto e comodo. The work had its first publicperformance in Copenhagen in November 1907. The revised version was firstperformed in 1919 and published in 1923 with a dedication to the CopenhagenQuartet.
The first movement of the String Quartet in F major is one ofgreat clarity of texture, justification for the composer's own view that atlast he had come to terms with a form that he had first attempted as a student.
In the opening theme, presented by the first violin, followed by the cello andviola, there are chromatic twists that significantly extend the traditionalconcept of tonality, within an established classical form, that of thesonata-rondo. The innovative nature of the writing is further stressed in theunusual choice of key for the secondsubject, C sharp minor, the enharmonic equivalent of D flat minor. Thissubsidiary theme is introduced by the first violin, followed by the cello andboth themes duly appear in the central development section of the movement, thesecond theme now in F sharp minor, and in the recapitulation, where the secondsubject returns in D minor. The movement ends in a dramatically hushed coda.
The second movement starts with a chordal hymn-like theme, introducing aternary structure, the first theme returning to frame a contrasted but thematicallyrelated central section of stronger tension. This C major movement is followedby an A minor movement that has something of the form of a gentle scherzo andtrio, the latter introduced by the cello, imitated by the first violin.
Grandiose C major chords provide a very brief introduction to the lastmovement, with a principal theme of varied rhythmic interest and a more lyricalsecondary theme introduced by the cello. In the central development there isthe beginning of what seems about to be a fugue, with a wandering chromaticsubject introduced by the viola, followed by the second violin and the cello inturn. Other earlier elements make an appearance before a brief first violincadenza and the start of the recapitulation that allows the secondary themecharacteristic moments of contrapuntal imitation.