Edvard GRIEG (1841-1907)
String Quartet No. 1 in G minor Op. 17 (1877) [34.30]
String Quartet No. 2 in F major (comp. Levon Chilingirian) (1891) [29.46]
rec. 8-10 December 1998, St.George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol HYPERION
HELIOS CDH55299 [64.25]
A good coupling, the two Grieg Quartets. Really
though, it’s only one and half quartets because the composer
never managed to complete the second despite the fact that
the first two movements date from sixteen years before his
death. I suspect it was because he realised that in the First
Quartet he had written an impassioned masterpiece and that
he probably could not exceed his achievements and also not
repeat the formula. It’s the opening, twelve minute movement
that is especially remarkable, for a composer often associated
with miniatures, or ‘bon-bons stuffed with snow’.
The inspiration in this work never wanes. The
opening Allegro has an adagio introduction of considerable
power. The movement is in sonata-form with a memorable first
subject and a completely contrasting, meltingly tuneful second
subject. These which constitute by far the longest section
of the quartet are successfully woven into a convincing whole
and remind us that Grieg is not just a pretty miniaturist
and. There are several passages which remind me of melodies
and indeed rhythms found in the finale of the famous piano
concerto, completed only the year before. The second movement
is marked ‘Romance’, but has contrasting tempi including
an allegro agitato which reappears. The third is an Intermezzo marked Allegro and
but which is also indicated as a scherzando. There’s
also a delightful trio section. The finale is marked Presto
al Salterello with a Lento introduction which
comes back towards the end. A joyous coda rounds things off.
It makes a decisive and ideal end to a strong work.
I was bowled over by this First Quartet coming
to it for the first time and was expecting much from the
Second. This latter was written in Copenhagen where Grieg
lived for a while after 1891. In the accompanying essay by
Erling Dahl, Grieg is quoted as having written the following
to his friend Frants Beyer. He bemoans that “here there is
nothing inspiring or stimulating” and he goes on “the music
I settle on one day I tear out of my heart the next … The
ideas are bloodless, just as I am …”. I have to admit that
the music of the pastoral and easy-going first movement sounds
just like it. It does not seem to have cried out to have
been written; craftsman-like certainly, and pleasant enough
but that’s it. With the second movement we are back in Norway.
I hear a Hardanger fiddle melody and folk-like drones. The
third movement is a song-like adagio and the fourth is a
happy little Allegro. Both are quite short and have been
reconstructed by Levon Chilingirian, as he writes in the
booklet, from various sketches. His brief remarks are for
me very frustrating as he fails to tell us exactly what his
contribution was and nothing about the state of the originals.
The fourth movement ends in a hopelessly abrupt manner to
such a degree that the completed work is unperformable as
it stands. Surely, in reconstructing a work a satisfactory
ending should be ‘composed’ even if we have no idea what
the composer intended. That is after all what makes Anthony
Payne’s Elgar 3 so successful.
In recent years I have heard the Chilingirian
Quartet live a few times and have not been as impressed as
I might have expected. Back in 1998 they really hit the jackpot
with this recording and are on superb form. They obviously
have a deep feeling for the music and are captured in the
lovely and easy-going acoustic of St. Georges in Bristol
most naturally by Andrew Keener.
Now that Hyperion have released this disc on their
inexpensive Helios label I can only suggest that it is well
worth the outlay. Certainly the first quartet is a masterwork
and deserves to be better known.
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