About this Recording
8.553907 - NIELSEN, C.: String Quartets, Vol. 1
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Carl Nielsen (1865-1931)
String Quartets (Complete) Volume 1
String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 14
String Quartet in F major, Op. 44

The Danish composer Carl Nielsen was born in 1865, the son of a painter and village musician in whose band he had his earliest musical experience playing the violin. In 1879, after learning to play the cornet, he joined a military orchestra at Odense and by 1884 had been able, with the help of sponsors, to enter the Royal Danish Conservatory in Copenhagen as a student of the violin, piano and music theory. After graduation in 1886 his compositions began to win a hearing, with a significant success in 1888 for his Little Suite, scored for strings. The following year he became a violinist in the royal chapel, broadening still further his musical experience and in particular his knowledge of the music of Wagner, a subject of serious study for him in Germany in 1890. It was here that he began the first of his six symphonies, completed in 1892. The previous year had brought a visit to Paris and a meeting with the sculptress Anne Marie Brodersen, whom he married, travelling together with her to Italy, before the couple returned to Denmark in the summer.

Nielsen's work as a violinist in the royal chapel continued until 1905, when jealousies eased him out of his position. Now, however, there was a growing demand for his services as a conductor, particularly of his own works, and in 1908 he succeeded Johan Svendsen as conductor at the Royal Theatre, a position he held until 1914. His growing international reputation, particularly through his symphonies, led to invitations to conduct abroad, while at home he took a leading part in the musical life of Denmark, teaching at the Copenhagen Conservatory and later joining the governing body of that institution and serving the cause of national musical education. He died in 1931.

The leading Danish composer of his generation, Nielsen left, in addition to his six remarkable symphonies, two operas, concertos for violin and for clarinet and a number of other orchestral compositions. To choral works and songs may be added a wind quintet, which enjoys continued popularity, three violin sonatas, a small quantity of music for the piano, a string quintet and five completed string quartets. The first of these last, the String Quartet in D minor, completed in 1882, remained unpublished in the composer's lifetime, while the String Quartet in G minor, Opus 13, completed in 1888, was revised ten years later. The String Quartet in F minor, Opus 5, was written in 1890, to be followed in 1898 by the String Quartet in E flat major, Opus 14. A work for string quartet, Piacevolezza, Opus 19, written in 1906, was revised in 1919 as the String Quartet in F major, Opus 44.

The String Quartet in E flat major, Opus 14, was first performed in Copenhagen in May 1899 but the subsequent loss of the manuscript necessitated a reconstruction, from memory, for performance in December 1900 and subsequent publication. The sonata-rondo form first movement is rich in invention, with a declamatory first subject and a second, introduced by the cello and marked molto tranquillo. There are moments of intense excitement, rhythmic diversity and contrapuntal ingenuity as the music takes its sweeping course. The slow movement seems about to start in the key of A minor but soon finds security in E flat, its thematic statement underpinned by a sustained note on the cello. The dotted rhythms of the central section of this ternary movement are introduced by the viola and it is the cello that returns with the principal theme, accompanied by the generally triplet rhythms of the violins. The third movement, broadly in the form of a scherzo and trio, is in C major. The gentle lilt of the opening gives way to an energetic Presto but subsides into the gently chromatic mood of the opening, when the Allegretto pastorale returns. The original key of E flat major is stressed in the cheerful opening theme of the Finale, with its more chromatic second subject marked molto tranquillo. The central development has a fascinating variety of musical material and is duly followed by an emphatic return of the first theme and the more chromatic second. The movement ends with contrapuntal imitation of a motif from the principal theme in a now familiar rhythm, leading to a decisive conclusion.

From time to time Nielsen was able to take refuge from the difficulties of musical life in Copenhagen among friends at Fuglsang. It was there, in 1906, that he played through his new quartet, Piacevolezza, its original title taken from the original characteristically descriptive direction at the head of its first movement, Allegro piacevolo ed indolente, later replaced, after the revision of the work in 1919, by the more conventional and finally more apt Allegro non tanto e comodo. The work had its first public performance in Copenhagen in November 1907. The revised version was first performed in 1919 and published in 1923 with a dedication to the Copenhagen Quartet.

The first movement of the String Quartet in F major is one of great clarity of texture, justification for the composer's own view that at last he had come to terms with a form that he had first attempted as a student. In the opening theme, presented by the first violin, followed by the cello and viola, there are chromatic twists that significantly extend the traditional concept of tonality, within an established classical form, that of the sonata-rondo. The innovative nature of the writing is further stressed in the unusual choice of key for the second subject, C sharp minor, the enharmonic equivalent of D flat minor. This subsidiary theme is introduced by the first violin, followed by the cello and both themes duly appear in the central development section of the movement, the second theme now in F sharp minor, and in the recapitulation, where the second subject returns in D minor. The movement ends in a dramatically hushed coda. The second movement starts with a chordal hymn-like theme, introducing a ternary structure, the first theme returning to frame a contrasted but thematically related central section of stronger tension. This C major movement is followed by an A minor movement that has something of the form of a gentle scherzo and trio, the latter introduced by the cello, imitated by the first violin. Grandiose C major chords provide a very brief introduction to the last movement, with a principal theme of varied rhythmic interest and a more lyrical secondary theme introduced by the cello. In the central development there is the beginning of what seems about to be a fugue, with a wandering chromatic subject introduced by the viola, followed by the second violin and the cello in turn. Other earlier elements make an appearance before a brief first violin cadenza and the start of the recapitulation that allows the secondary theme characteristic moments of contrapuntal imitation.


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