The Engegård Quartet from Norway consists of Norwegians on the upper and lower parts and English players of the inner parts. The leader and violist are married. They have already recorded Grieg’s G minor Quartet superbly for the audiophile label 2L, for whom they have done several CDs. They have a CD of Catherinus Elling – a composer I recommend – on Simax and this is their début disc for BIS.
Grieg’s Quartet, one of relatively few large-scale works by the great miniaturist and his only mature, completed essay in the medium, is a magnificent creation which is still, it seems to me, insufficiently appreciated. It was misunderstood from the start, by people with a circumscribed idea of chamber music in general and the string quartet medium in particular. Even Grieg’s publisher was glum about it. The main accusation was that it was too orchestral. The same sort of thing was said about Tchaikovsky’s chamber music for strings. Let us just think about this for a moment. Even if four string players are all playing double or multiple stops, they are unlikely to be going into more than eight or 12 parts. Would the learned critics of the Grieg G minor balk at eight or a dozen parts in Mendelssohn’s Octet? No. Yet in the literature on Grieg it is hard to find anyone with the guts to stand up for his beautiful Quartet. In the Master Musicians volume on the composer, John Horton is so reluctant to admit its beauties that he does not even describe all the movements. Debussy, who made at least one disparaging remark about Grieg, paid the G minor the compliment of borrowing several ideas from it for his own quartet, including its key and its ground-plan. He even filched Grieg’s strategem of linking all four movements with a motto theme – Grieg had in turn borrowed this motif from the first of his Op. 25 songs, an Ibsen setting entitled Spillemænd
(Fiddlers), and he would use a variant of it at the start of his Piano Concerto.
Fortunately, a brace of great ensembles immersed themselves in the piece and produced worthy recordings. The first landmark was the 1937 78rpm set by the Budapest Quartet, the best performance from their initial period as an all-Russian ensemble. The notable LP version was that by the Copenhagen Quartet, which was issued in America in 1969 but appears not to have been released in Britain. It is now reissued on CD in excellent sound on the ClassicO label, albeit with the first PQ point misplaced – so that if you want to hear the Romanze on its own, you must first listen to four minutes of the opening movement. The CD era has seen some creditable contenders, though none with the stature and authority of those two classics.
This new version may be what Grieg lovers have been waiting for, as the music-making is urgent, fleet and intense. The yearning motto motif at the start is poignantly played and the start of the Allegro molto ed agitato is perfectly timed, at an excellent tempo – passionate music, full of arresting melodies, meeting with a passionate response. The Engegårds find a lovely swinging tempo for the main theme of the Romanze, which is twice interrupted by scherzo-like interludes before returning for a last time. The Intermezzo is folky, with a typically Grieg-like Trio; and the Finale, which like the first movement starts with the motto before launching into a Presto al saltarello, is well held together; the tempo changes never cause the tension to slip.
Sibelius, like Nielsen, gave up writing quartets just when he had finally worked out how to do it. His early essays include some terrific music – many people praise the B flat Quartet of 1890 and I have a soft spot for the A minor of 1889. Voces intimae
of 1909 is structured in the five-movement arch form for which Bartók is known, although the Finn got there first. It has never quite received its due. The second violin of a prominent American ensemble tried for several years to get his colleagues to agree to play it, before they finally succumbed and realised it was a masterpiece. Again we were indebted to the Budapest and Copenhagen groups for stand-out 78rpm and LP performances, although in this case their recordings were separated by a first-rate Griller version. In 2007 a live 1956 rendering by the Smetana Quartet was issued – their first attempt at a work that did not stay long in their repertoire, it showed what amazing quartettists they were. The CD era has ushered in a number of recordings of varying quality, including an exceptional version by the Jean Sibelius Quartet (coupled with the A minor) and several on the BIS label.
It makes a logical companion for the Grieg, especially as the Engegårds have a very good sense of relative tempi, so vital in a multi-movement piece. The opening phrases (Andante) create the right atmosphere and the Allegro molto moderato is well paced. The Vivace goes like the wind, with real lightness; the Adagio di molto is beautifully sung, intense and passionate; the folky, scherzo-like Allegretto is well controlled, with excellent rhythm; and the Allegro is definitely a fast finale, played with great virtuosity and precision – it is certainly not an anti-climax, as happens with less good performances.
I frankly do not know what to make of Olav Anton Thommessen’s Felix Remix
, which the Engegårds premièred in 2014. At nine minutes, it is too long for an encore and too short for a fully-fledged quartet. Based on the Scherzo of Mendelssohn’s Op. 44 No. 2, it seems like a basically conservative piece with trimmings to make it seem new – high-pitched sounds, harmonics, glissandi, wisps of sound to create a dream-like ambience. It must be difficult to play in places but it ends with almost apologetic pizzicati, as if the composer does not really mean it. If Thommessen were to add a second movement it might amount to something. As it is ...
The recordings were produced and engineered by Ingo Petry. The players are set in a comfortable acoustic, the bright violin sounds are well contained and the cello is always audible. Engegård plays a circa 1857 Vuillaume, Robson a Vuillaume copy which matches his colleague’s violin well, Jopling a circa 1770 Giuseppe Guadagnini of Parma, and Carlsen a 1926 Audino of Paris. The Grieg and Sibelius make a powerful combination and in such well-thought-out-and-executed interpretations.