Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartet in g.
Octet in A
M. Nostitz Quartet
PRAGA 250274 (SACD: 73:33)
Here is an exciting new release that is unique in a number of ways. To begin with, of some 20 or so currently listed recordings of Grieg’s G-Minor String Quartet, this is the first I’m aware of to appear in SACD format. Second, it’s coupled with
Johann Svendsen’s rarely heard Octet. And third, the Kocian Quartet rarely disappoints with its interesting programs. This long-running, estimable Czech ensemble has been around since 1972 (with periodic changes in personnel, of course) and has built an impressive discography that includes important releases of works by Czech Jewish composers who perished in the Holocaust—namely Victor Ullmann, Hans Krása, and Pavel Haas—and another native Czech,Viktor Kalabis, who suffered at the hands of the Communists.
With Grieg and Svendsen, the Kocian now adds Scandinavia to its geographical survey, which has thus far roamed through the Austro-German terrain of Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Zemlinsky, and Hindemith, with stopovers in Russia to visit Tchaikovsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov, and additional Czech expeditions beyond the aforementioned to explore Dvo?ák, Fibich, and Martin?.
Grieg’s G-Minor String Quartet, his first, completed in 1878—he never finished a second begun several years later—is a fascinating and in some ways shocking work. Grieg biographer Erling Dahl Jr. has observed of the G-Minor Quartet that “its musical language is rather radical, and in many ways a bridge between the late Beethoven quartets and Debussy’s quartet of 15 years later.” And indeed, compared to Brahms’s harmonic vocabulary in 1878 (take the Violin Concerto or the Violin Sonata No. 1), Grieg’s harmonic lexis, at that moment, does sound more dissonant and freely associative. Formally, the quartet is cyclic, all four movements being based on the composer’s Ibsen song
(Fiddlers), op. 25/1. Dahl also notes that the style of Grieg’s writing in the quartet is markedly homophonic, resulting in an almost orchestral thickness of the sound, which is frequently reinforced by
double-stopping in all four instruments simultaneously. I would offer my own opinion that the emotional intensity of the music, with its halting, rapid speech-like declamations and its nervously shifting rhythmic undercurrents, is much closer to Janá?ek’s 1923 “Kreutzer Sonata” Quartet than it is to Debussy’s 1893 Quartet, which puts Grieg, at least insofar as this one work is concerned, 45 years ahead of his time rather than 15.
Now to Svendsen (1840–1911): Though he lived most of his life in Denmark, he was, like Grieg, Norwegian by birth. His musical training and background, as well as his personal and social life, however, were quite cosmopolitan, not to mention the perfect pablum for a Tinsel Town tabloid. While studying violin under Ferdinand David (of Mendelssohn fame) and composition with Carl Reinecke in Leipzig, he fathered an out-of-wedlock son. He spent a couple of years in Paris and then, in 1871, followed the scent of a woman he’d met there to New York where he married her. Over the next few years, conducting invitations beckoned Svendsen to Germany, Italy, England, and France, and eventually to Denmark, where he accepted an offer to become principal conductor of the Royal Theater Orchestra in Copenhagen, and there he remained until his death.
Meanwhile, things were going from bad to worse between Svendsen and his wife, culminating in an ugly spat during which she barbecued his only copy of a third symphony, an object lesson in why you should always back up your important documents. The couple finally split in 1901, whereupon the composer promptly married a mistress with whom he’d already been living for a number of years and with whom he would father three children. His younger son from that liaison went on to become the famous Danish actor Eyvind Johan-Svendsen.
Unlike Grieg’s orchestral output, which was relatively modest, Svendsen’s forte was the orchestra. Outside of a small number of chamber works, including the present octet, a ballet, and a sprinkling of songs and choral pieces, most of what he wrote was in fact orchestral music—two symphonies (a third incinerated by a woman scorned), concertos for violin and cello, a number of tone poems, and a series of Norwegian rhapsodies.
Not being able to come up with too many composers off the top of my head other than Mendelssohn and Bruch who wrote string octets—and Spohr, if you count his double string quartets as octets—I was prepared to say that Svendsen’s opus was probably the finest example of the genre between Mendelssohn and Bruch. But lucky thing I didn’t because, after doing a little research, I discovered that string octets, while not growing on trees, are not as rare as I’d thought.
A previous recording of Svendsen’s Octet on Stieglitz with the South German String Octet was reviewed a dozen years ago by Richard Burke in
23:1. That recording, which appears to be no longer available, paired the Svendsen with Gade’s Octet. At present, however, two others are listed, one of them a 1993 Chandos with members of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble, the other on BIS minted a year later with the Kontra String Quartet and friends. On the present album, the Kocian Quartet is joined by its own home-schooled and personally groomed ensemble, the M. Nostitz Quartet, established in 1994 at the Academy of Music in Prague.
Svendsen was 26 and still under the influence of David and Reinecke when he wrote his Octet in 1866. Yet to come in this youthful score is the composer’s decided turn toward a heavily accented Scandinavian voice. Elements prefiguring a Norwegian folk idiom are present, to be sure, but they’re not dominant. For the most part the Octet, in a sunny A Major, trips along in a mid-Romantic style comparable to that of many composers active in the period between Mendelssohn and Brahms. In fact, a close stylistic parallel is the piano quartet written just one year after Svendsen’s Octet by Hermann Goetz, born in the very same year, 1840, as Svendsen.
To all lovers of Romantic era chamber music, I highly recommend this CD. Admittedly, there’s some stiff competition in the Grieg by ensembles such as the Emerson, Matangi, and Vertavo Quartets; but except for the two older recordings listed above, the combined Kocian and M. Nostitz Quartets practically have the field to themselves in the Svendsen, which is such a lovely work it deserves a performance as fine as this one, and an SACD recording that so effectively separates and clarifies the eight voices. Buy and enjoy.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
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