Norwegian 20th Century String Quartets (Oslo Quartet) (Naxos: 8.554384)
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Norwegian 20th-CenturyString Quartets
String quartets occupy a relatively central position in the musicalliterature of Norway. Most of the leading Norwegian composers have written oneor more works in this genre, although relatively few have come to be regardedas masterpieces. Grieg's great String Quartet in G minor is a shiningexample from the nineteenth century, a work that has won considerable acclaiminternationally and been recorded by several renowned ensembles, including theOslo String Quartet. This recording presents two of the best works from thefirst half of the twentieth century together with two quartets by leadingcontemporary composers.
Fartein Valen and Klaus Egge were great innovators in their day andtheir quartets are some of their finest work. The two composers were quitedissimilar in temperament, Egge being lively and outgoing, whereas Valen wasquiet and cautious. Between the two world wars each was at the forefront ofopposing stylistic movements; Egge with a nationalist style based on folk-musicand Valen with a more European twelve-tone polyphony.
Since those days the stylistic diversity between Norwegian composers hasincreased greatly, yet there continues to be an interesting tension between thenational style and international currents, represented on this disc by thegreat traditionalist Johan Kvandal and the all-embracing Alfred Janson.
Fartein Valen's development towards a personal style represents one ofthe most fascinating chapters in Norwegian music history. He studiedcomposition first at the Conservatory in Oslo from 1906 to 1909 and then at theMusikhochschule in Berlin. Whilst in Berlin and subjected to a number of stronginfluences, Valen composed his first published works, among them his great ViolinSonata, Op. 3. The works composed in Berlin are in a mature, late-romanticvein and use quite a different musical language to his later works. From 1917to 1924 Valen struggled to develop as a composer, a struggle which resulted inthe Song for orchestra Ave Maria, Op. 4 and the Piano Trio, Op.
5, the only two works to emerge from these years. Independently of the SecondViennese School Valen continued to push back the frontiers of tonality untilthey ceased to exist. For the next twenty years after he produced systematicexercises in counterpoint, both in the style of Bach and his own strictlyexecuted dissonant polyphony.
During the 1930s and 1940s Valen composed a series of large-scaleorchestral works, including his four symphonies, the Violin Concerto andthe symphonic poem Kirkeg?Ñrden ved haver ('The Churchyard by the Sea').
During his lifetime Valen's music was unfortunately little understood, but hehas subsequently come to be regarded as one of Norway's most importantcontributions to twentieth-century music. Despite all opposition he never lostfaith in his chosen path as a composer, drawing strength from a deeply heldChristian outlook.
Fartein Valen's String Quartet No. 2 is representative of hismature style. It was composed during a summer Valen spent as the family retreatValev?Ñg in 1932. The beautiful landscape of western Norway has clearlyleft its mark on the quartet. On one of his evening walks Valen had gone downto the harbour for a breath of fresh air and to look at the stars. When he gotdown to the water he stood watching the reflection of the stars in the gentlewaves. He was captivated by the atmosphere, which inspired the first movementof the quartet, a fugue. Its theme contains all twelve notes of the twelve-tonescale although the movement is not strictly executed in twelve-tone form.
Interval leaps together with dynamics create the impression of gentle waves,and the extended lines can suggest a feeling of solitude. The second movementis a contrast with its elegant dance rhythms (Tempo di minuetto), butthe tonality is 'twisted' in true Valen style, this combination giving themusic a swaying feeling and at the same time a slightly burlesque flavour. Thefinal movement is in sonata form and is both full of contrasts and dramatic,displaying much of the introspection and power of expression that Valen isrenowned for.
Klaus Egge was Fartein Valen's direct opposite as a person, yet theirmusic displays certain similarities, especially in the treatment of polyphony.
Just like Valen, Egge was determined to pursue the 'path of greatestresistance' through strictly executed counterpoint. In all his compositionsthemes undergo detailed development, often resulting in a m?¬lee of motivicimitation. Yet folk-music remained Egge's main source of inspiration anddefined him as a composer.
Egge grew up in Telemark, in south-western Norway, coming into contactwith the folk-music of the province as a child. His first publishedcompositions feature folk-music as an integral part of his tonal language, suchas the sombre Draumkvedesonate, Op. 4 ('Dream-Song Sonata'). Right upuntil the expansive Symphony No. 1 of 1942 Norwegian influencespredominate, whereas in later works Egge's style is more abstract, movingtowards twelve-tone form, although without losing the national elemententirely.
Egge's String Quartet has a unique genesis. In the summer of 1933a friend of Egge's, the poet Hans Reynolds died. Egge was inspired to write a Largofun?¿bre which was played at the funeral and which became the first movementof the String Quartet. The second movement is lively and contains bothrunning figures and fragments from the traditional Draumkvede music,while the third movement returns us to the initial melancholy of the Largo andtowards the end of the movement Egge quotes elements of an eskimo lament. Eggeincluded the lament because Reynolds had studied the culture of the Greenlandeskimos and had sung the lament for Egge. Legend has it that it was originallysung by an eskimo who was starving to death in the icy wastelands. Eggecaptures the atmosphere with an icy sound. The final movement followsimmediately, brushing the tragic aside with lively folk rhythms.
Johan Kvandal occupies a unique position among composers in Norwaytoday. Not only is he the last representative of the great Norwegian-inspiredtradition, but his works enjoy an unusually great popularity among musiciansand audiences alike. With great insight he composed for virtually allinstruments, and his best work, have already achieved the status of classics.
He grew up in a highly artistic environment. Kvandal's father, David MonradJohansen, was a composer and encouraged the boy, whilst his mother Lissa openedhis eyes to literature. Kvandal's first period as a composer was heavilyinfluenced by this, although his works from this time show clearly that he hadalso studied the Viennese classicists in depth. In an effort to renew hismusical language during the 1960s Kvandal was influenced by modernist trends,which led to a coarser use of dissonance and more experimental form. In the1970s there was another shift of style, a return to a more moderate style whichnevertheless retained some of the daring he had acquired during the 1960s. Someof his best works followed, including the hypnotic orchestral work Antagonia.
Kvandal again avails himself of Norwegian folk-music as the very buildingbricks of his composition. He died in February 1999.
Johan Kvandal's String Quartet No. 3 begins with a theme takenfrom the mediaeval ballad De to s?©stre ('The Two Sisters'), and thistheme is used as a leitmotiv throughout the work. The original ballad ishighly dramatic,