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Times of Unrest
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
String Quartet Op. 76 No. 2 in D minor “Quinten-Quartett” (1797)
Hanne Tofte Jespersen (b. 1956)
String Quartet No. 1 “Urolige Tider” (2020)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
String Quartet No. 1 in D major Op. 25 (1941)
Nordic String Quartet
rec. 2022, Sankt Laurentii Kirke, Roskilde; Hørsholm Sognegård, Denmark

This disc’s raison d’être is quite simple but terribly relevant. In 2018, composer Hanne Tofte Jespersen was commissioned to write a string quartet for the chamber music society BRAGE. The idea was for the new work to major on a historical theme, and to be seen in context with Haydn’s late D minor Quartet and Benjamin Britten’s First Quartet. History was to catch up. Tofte Jespersen finished her quartet during the first major Covid-19 lockdown, when all live musical activities were suspended. It was eventually premiered in November 2020, shortly before the next lockdown. Fast forward to February/May 2022, when this album was recorded. The pandemic was in retreat but Europe was engaged in the most serious and extensive war since 1945. The liner notes say: “the music[al] works of this project express both unrest, threat, hope, and even a vision of peace”.

The scholar H. C. Robbins Landon once noted that Haydn’s Quinten-Quartett is “one of the most serious, learned and intellectually formidable works that [Haydn] ever wrote”. It has been suggested that the Andante is a little lightweight, when heard against the other three movements. It could just be that Haydn was giving the listener a rest before the more significant material. The Menuetto, sometimes called the Witches Minuet, is harsh and acerbic. The first and second violins and the viola and cello play in open octaves and in canon at about a bar’s interval, reminiscing on the opening movement. The trio section has wild “stamping rhythms” and rapid alteration between D major and minor. The finale is pure Gypsy/Hungarian music, once again based on a melodic interval of the fifth, this time A-E. This tour de force displays slides, bagpipe drones and even, they say, a donkey braying! I felt that the present ensemble explored the variety of this quartet with aplomb and enthusiasm.

The liner notes say that the key concept of Hanne Tofte Jespersen’s new piece is “threads back in time”. As a student, she sang in a Danish choir which gave a performance of Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia (1941-1942) to a text by W. H. Auden. This choral piece led her to Britten’s String Quartet No. 1, contemporaneous with St Cecilia. In 2020, she followed this “thread” and took some motifs from Haydn’s quartet. The resulting was inspired by the “classical quartet tradition”, of which Haydn is deemed to be the father”, and by a reminiscence of her “fascination” with Britten’s experimental music. There is a detailed, somewhat poetic, technical exposition of Tofte Jespersen’s quartet in the liner notes – but this balance, this equilibrium between classical and innovative is all the listener needs to bring to the party. Here we find lyrical themes counterpoised with polytonality, clusters and a freedom of rhythmic construction. There is also an overall progress, I think, from unrest to tranquillity, but moments of stress and repose reappear throughout the piece. Overall, I found the new quartet satisfying and approachable.

Benjamin Britten’s wrote String Quartet No. 1 in the United States. He and his partner Peter Pears were staying in San Diego, California, about as far away from the war in Europe as possible. The quartet, commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, was premiered in Los Angeles on 21 September 1941.

David Truslove, in a programme note, gives an ideal summary: “It is almost as if memories of Britten’s native Suffolk coast and the vigour of California have become distilled in the Quartet’s oppositional landscape.” The remarkable introduction counterpoints a high-pitched “molto vibrato” motif for the violins and viola with pizzicato chords and arpeggios of the cello. Next, the toccata-like Allegro vivo propels the music in an almost urban splash. Is the composer reminiscing about his beloved Aldeburgh, and is at the same time overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of city life? The Scherzo, nodding to Beethoven, is humorous and witty rather than profound. It is played here with great energy and with caustic tone. The listener is inevitably reminded of the “moonlight music” from Peter Grimes in the long slow movement. This nocturne is the emotional heart of the Quartet. The vivacious finale ties into the first work heard here: it is not possible to listen to this movement without recognising at least a hat tip to Papa Haydn. It is full of the metropolitan pizzazz that is the antithesis of the marshes and reed beds around Snape. The present performance is ideal, and succeeds in presenting “the powerful, dramatic contrasts” between, and sometimes within, the four movements.

The genuinely helpful liner notes in Danish and English include a brief overview of the genesis of the project, short notes about all three quartets, a more detailed study of the new work, and an essay which contextualises the “Historical Scope of 1790-2020”, as well as short biographies of the performers and Hanne Tofte Jespersen.

As a concept album, Times of Unrest succeeds less well than if it had been entitled Threads back in Time, because historically all ages seem to be ages of turmoil. But I get the point that the album reflects the traumatic effect of the pandemic and latterly the war in Ukraine.

John France

Kirstine Schneider (violin), Mads Haugsted Hansen (violin), Daniel Eklund (viola), Lea Brøndal (cello)

Published: October 7, 2022

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