Rued LANGGAARD (1893-1952)
Complete String Quartets
Nightingale String Quartet
rec. 2010-13, Concert Hall, Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen DACAPO 6.200004 SACD [3 discs: 208:11]
Between 2010 and 2013 the Nightingale Quartet recorded Rued Langgaard’s complete quartet cycle. It had the considerable advantage of including two previously unrecorded works – the 1918 Rose Garden Play, BVN153 and the String Quartet No.1, BVN68, written in the first two years of the First World War but revised in 1936. Also previously unrecorded was the very brief Italian Scherzo, the string quartet movement of 1950.
All the volumes were reviewed on their first appearance (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 ~ Volume 3) but they have now been handily packaged in a three-disc box with a booklet that reprises the information contained in their first incarnations. The quartets present complex challenges, whether of modernism or a retreat, if that’s what it is, to Classicism. There’s little real mediation between Langgard’s emotive and stylistic poles. The former impresses in the Quartet No.2, with its strikingly assertive contrasts of jagged modernity and rich lyricism, its pre-Honegger train impersonations, complete with whistle, its incarnation of a fiddler in a storm, and its flickering between ethereal and athletic. This quartet dates from 1918 but by 1924, in the Third, he had reached a more complete command of abrasive contemporary language, though it is and always was, tethered to moments of the most serene lyricism. His use of a chorale in the finale deepens the quartet’s expression notably. Quartet No.6 despite the numbering dates back to 1918. Cast in one movement it’s a folk song quartet complete with a Swedish folk section and some stirring ecclesiastical sonorities. It has an almost Schubertian easefulness in places, yet it was forgotten for many decades after its premiere. This first disc ends with the rather Beethovenian Variations on Oh, Sacred Head! Now Wounded.
The Rose Gradin Play was much revised but represents some of his most attractively wrought chamber music – rhythmically engaging and lyrically supple. Some plosive exaggerations in the ‘Mozart’ march of the scherzo preface a strangely uneasy Tranquillo slow movement. An argument is advanced in the notes that the A flat String Quartet of 1918 has an analogue in Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, premiered some months before Langgaard wrote his quartet. It’s in no way neo-classicism but more an evocation of nineteenth century Vienna; with some more-than-latent Beethovenian touches. As ever with the composer, moments of idyll are more pronounced, personal and redolent than Classical immersion. Quartet No.4 (‘Summer Days’) was composed during the length of the First World War but revised in 1931. Its opening movement is essentially a recycling of the same movement in the Rose Garden Play quartet and it’s only in the central Scherzo, a brief moment of warmth, that the composer is heard at his best.
The String Quartet No.1 was his first major chamber work. Dating from 1914-15 it was, unsurprisingly, revisited by the composer in 1936. In dejection he had scrapped two movements but two decades later he returned to these two rejected movements and reconstituted them from memory. There are plenty of mood and time changes in the Scherzo, whilst there are serious, slow and static elements in the slow movement before a sudden dramatic nightmarish section. Beautiful, if Classical, the finale is an eloquent Sostenuto. Perplexing though its compositional history may be, and typically odd though it may seem structurally, this Quartet embodies the yin and yang of Langgaard’s writing to a free and full degree. After which the Fifth Quartet of 1925, which sounds like a minor effort from 1850 – charming and melodious - reflects a composer in full-scale retreat from - and rejection of – Modernism.
The corpus of Langgaard’s provocative string quartet works offers endless opportunities to reflect on his advances and retreats stylistically, on the roles of self-borrowing and reconstruction and revision, and on his sheer bloody-minded individualism.
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