As a long term resident of The Hague, I am truly embarrassed to have to admit not knowing very much at all about Robert de Roos. His profile is not exactly high, and he is not well represented either on recordings or concert programmes, but this impressive CD from the Utrecht String Quartet will do his reputation no harm whatsoever. Born in The Hague, he studied at the Royal Conservatoire there, receiving instruction in composition from Johan Wagenaar. He then moved to Paris and took private lessons with Darius Milhaud, as well as learning counterpoint with Charles Koechlin and Roland Manuel. He later also studied orchestration and fugue technique with Sem Dresden. De Roos never became a professional musician, having instead a distinguished diplomatic career, acting from 1946 to 1956 as Cultural Attaché at the Dutch Embassy in Paris, and in 1957 he was appointed as Principal Secretary for Press and Cultural Affairs at the Embassy at Caracas in Venezuela, taking on the same position in 1961in Bogotá, Quito, La Paz and Lima. After important posts in London and Buenos Aires he returned to The Netherlands in 1973, dying there in 1976.
Initially influenced by the German and French schools, De Roos found a personal style which responded to the training in counterpoint he had sought in earlier years. As a student of the violin in The Hague, De Roos acquired the technical knowledge in string writing which made the string quartet a natural medium for some of his best work. Taken in chronological order, the String Quartet II brings us at once into a musical world which is remarkably expressive and technically highly proficient. Influenced by the technical approach of his country man Willem Pijper, this piece arguably has some sonorities in common with Paul Hindemith, whose scores De Roos could conceivably have studied in The Hague public library – I only know this as I’ve bought some of stock from the period complete with wartime date stamps, sold off in the early 1990s when the collection was moved to a shiny new building on the Spui.
The String Quartet III also dates from the war years, started during the ‘hunger winter’ of 1944-45. By far the most substantial piece on this disc at over 32 minutes, the relatively cheery nature of much of the music in the piece is a remarkable reflection of the fortitude with which De Roos took to being evacuated twice in this period, finally finishing this four movement work in the summer house of his friend August Mees in Oegstgeest. This piece achieved recognition with the award of the Willem Pijper prize in 1961, and is full of moments of remarkable beauty and expressive potency. The Grave fugal introduction of the final movement is the real emotional centre of the piece, and carries the weight of the tragedies of war in as noble as way as anything by Shostakovich.
The CD opens impressively with the dramatic opening of the String Quartet V, a movement of 1:20 duration marked Allegro brioso where the sparks leap from the instruments as the musical material is thrown between members of the quartet in virtuoso style. The subsequent Grave is another powerfully expressive fugal statement, and with the fugal final movement another striking achievement you will look back at the 11:32 timing for this piece and wonder at how much monumentality of scale and emotional strength can be contained in such a compact piece. The late String Quartet VII is subtitled ‘Quartettino’, but again its compactness is only applicable to its duration. This is if anything the most intense of the pieces on this disc and certainly the most ‘modernist’, if that term can be applied at all fairly with regard to the works here. The booklet notes suggest that De Roos’ precariousness of health and impending heart surgery were responsible for the sense of restless and ‘gruesome collective tremolo’ in this piece, and comment on a poignant rehearsal of the piece in 1976 with the composer just before his death.
As per usual, MDG present a remarkably vibrant recording, communicating every sonority and expressive inflection of the excellent Utrecht String Quartet. The presentation is also striking, the cover painting being a 1965 work by Robert de Roos himself. I have been suitably impressed by this creative spirit, and chastened by my ignorance of his music. With this remarkable recording we can now all redress this shortcoming, and I urge all to broaden their horizons in De Roos’ direction.