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Dag WIRÉN (1905-1986)
String Quartets: 2 (1935) [19:05]; 3 (1941-45) [19:10]; 4 (1952-53) [18:29]; 5 (1970) [13:28]
Lysell Quartet
rec. Oct 2003, Sept 2004, Feb 2005, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm. DDD
DAPHNE 1021 [71:44]


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Most people familiar with classical music know the Swedish composer Dag Wirén for his 1930s Serenade for Strings. It is bright, ebullient and optimistic music. By contrast the string quartet form raises expectations of something more grave, much more serious.

The four quartets on this disc were written over a period straddling the Second World War and bring us to 1970. The period spans a total of 35 years.

The Second Quartet was written the year after Wirén’s marriage to cellist Noel Franks. It is a sunny work much inclined to happiness. In its busy textures, smiling tonality, contentment and joy-suffused athleticism it is a counterpart to the Serenade for Strings. The artless melodic of Wirén’s quartet parallels that of the Bax String Quartet No. 1, the Moeran quartets and the Dvořák late quartets. This sanguine mood, propensity for poetic mood-painting and candid song carries over into the wartime Third Quartet. That said, the Andante does tend towards a neo-classical fugal dryness. The first three of the four movements were written in close succession. The grave autumnal fourth movement was added in 1945. It remains a bustlingly active piece and was the first piece of music in which Wirén used the metamorphosis technique so closely associated with Vagn Holmboe.

The String Quartet No. 4 has, as the note-writer says, 'an ethereal shimmer'. This enchanting and slightly chilly aural web recalls a slimmed-down amalgam of Szymanowski and Bartók. It is in five movements with two intermezzi, one marked moderato the other prestissimo. The scorching downward-slashing violin 'dives' in the exhilarating prestissimo are memorable. The tonality has a tendency to wander ... though pleasingly. The music unites gritty determination with a sinister or haunting quality. There is no denying the grave power of this music which also recalls the bleached melancholy of late Shostakovich.

The Fifth Quartet was written two years before Wirén forsook composition. The mood and style is a natural and not large progression from the last movement of the Fourth Quartet. The stripped-down textures, gnomic style and general air of elegiac abstraction recalls Holst's Egdon Heath or the colder realms of Allan Petersson's whispered and despairing symphonic lentos. Wiren however makes the wraiths dance and caper in the finale which gutters like a candle suddenly snuffed out.

Rather like Howard Ferguson, Wirén gave up composition and for his last fourteen years there were to be no new works. 

Wirén wrote seven string quartets although he disowned numbers 0 and 1. The present CD from those nice folks at Daphne is not designated as volume 1. I do not know whether Daphne and the perceptive and sensitive virtuosi of the Lysell intend a follow-up.

These are certainly fascinating works with 2 and 3 winningly energetic and embracing joy. 4 and 5 powerfully reflect 20th century angst. Not to be missed.

Rob Barnett

NOTE: I can now confirm that Wirén wrote only six string quartets. These are numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Daphne have written to clarify this point and have indicated that in respect to the opinion of the composer: the first two quartets will not be recorded.
Daphne have no plans for a 'Wirén string quartets vol 2'. RB




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