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8.554384 - Norwegian 20th Century String Quartets
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Norwegian 20th-Century String Quartets

String quartets occupy a relatively central position in the musical literature of Norway. Most of the leading Norwegian composers have written one or more works in this genre, although relatively few have come to be regarded as masterpieces. Grieg's great String Quartet in G minor is a shining example from the nineteenth century, a work that has won considerable acclaim internationally and been recorded by several renowned ensembles, including the Oslo String Quartet. This recording presents two of the best works from the first half of the twentieth century together with two quartets by leading contemporary composers.

Fartein Valen and Klaus Egge were great innovators in their day and their quartets are some of their finest work. The two composers were quite dissimilar in temperament, Egge being lively and outgoing, whereas Valen was quiet and cautious. Between the two world wars each was at the forefront of opposing stylistic movements; Egge with a nationalist style based on folk-music and Valen with a more European twelve-tone polyphony.

Since those days the stylistic diversity between Norwegian composers has increased greatly, yet there continues to be an interesting tension between the national style and international currents, represented on this disc by the great traditionalist Johan Kvandal and the all-embracing Alfred Janson.

Fartein Valen's development towards a personal style represents one of the most fascinating chapters in Norwegian music history. He studied composition first at the Conservatory in Oslo from 1906 to 1909 and then at the Musikhochschule in Berlin. Whilst in Berlin and subjected to a number of strong influences, Valen composed his first published works, among them his great Violin Sonata, Op. 3. The works composed in Berlin are in a mature, late-romantic vein and use quite a different musical language to his later works. From 1917 to 1924 Valen struggled to develop as a composer, a struggle which resulted in the Song for orchestra Ave Maria, Op. 4 and the Piano Trio, Op. 5, the only two works to emerge from these years. Independently of the Second Viennese School Valen continued to push back the frontiers of tonality until they ceased to exist. For the next twenty years after he produced systematic exercises in counterpoint, both in the style of Bach and his own strictly executed dissonant polyphony.

During the 1930s and 1940s Valen composed a series of large-scale orchestral works, including his four symphonies, the Violin Concerto and the symphonic poem Kirkegården ved haver (‘The Churchyard by the Sea’). During his lifetime Valen's music was unfortunately little understood, but he has subsequently come to be regarded as one of Norway's most important contributions to twentieth-century music. Despite all opposition he never lost faith in his chosen path as a composer, drawing strength from a deeply held Christian outlook.

Fartein Valen's String Quartet No. 2 is representative of his mature style. It was composed during a summer Valen spent as the family retreat Valevåg in 1932. The beautiful landscape of western Norway has clearly left its mark on the quartet. On one of his evening walks Valen had gone down to the harbour for a breath of fresh air and to look at the stars. When he got down to the water he stood watching the reflection of the stars in the gentle waves. He was captivated by the atmosphere, which inspired the first movement of the quartet, a fugue. Its theme contains all twelve notes of the twelve-tone scale although the movement is not strictly executed in twelve-tone form. Interval leaps together with dynamics create the impression of gentle waves, and the extended lines can suggest a feeling of solitude. The second movement is a contrast with its elegant dance rhythms (Tempo di minuetto), but the tonality is 'twisted' in true Valen style, this combination giving the music a swaying feeling and at the same time a slightly burlesque flavour. The final movement is in sonata form and is both full of contrasts and dramatic, displaying much of the introspection and power of expression that Valen is renowned for.

Klaus Egge was Fartein Valen's direct opposite as a person, yet their music displays certain similarities, especially in the treatment of polyphony. Just like Valen, Egge was determined to pursue the 'path of greatest resistance' through strictly executed counterpoint. In all his compositions themes undergo detailed development, often resulting in a mêlée of motivic imitation. Yet folk-music remained Egge's main source of inspiration and defined him as a composer.

Egge grew up in Telemark, in south-western Norway, coming into contact with the folk-music of the province as a child. His first published compositions feature folk-music as an integral part of his tonal language, such as the sombre Draumkvedesonate, Op. 4 (‘Dream-Song Sonata’). Right up until the expansive Symphony No. 1 of 1942 Norwegian influences predominate, whereas in later works Egge's style is more abstract, moving towards twelve-tone form, although without losing the national element entirely.

Egge's String Quartet has a unique genesis. In the summer of 1933 a friend of Egge's, the poet Hans Reynolds died. Egge was inspired to write a Largo funèbre which was played at the funeral and which became the first movement of the String Quartet. The second movement is lively and contains both running figures and fragments from the traditional Draumkvede music, while the third movement returns us to the initial melancholy of the Largo and towards the end of the movement Egge quotes elements of an eskimo lament. Egge included the lament because Reynolds had studied the culture of the Greenland eskimos and had sung the lament for Egge. Legend has it that it was originally sung by an eskimo who was starving to death in the icy wastelands. Egge captures the atmosphere with an icy sound. The final movement follows immediately, brushing the tragic aside with lively folk rhythms.

Johan Kvandal occupies a unique position among composers in Norway today. Not only is he the last representative of the great Norwegian-inspired tradition, but his works enjoy an unusually great popularity among musicians and audiences alike. With great insight he composed for virtually all instruments, and his best work, have already achieved the status of classics. He grew up in a highly artistic environment. Kvandal's father, David Monrad Johansen, was a composer and encouraged the boy, whilst his mother Lissa opened his eyes to literature. Kvandal's first period as a composer was heavily influenced by this, although his works from this time show clearly that he had also studied the Viennese classicists in depth. In an effort to renew his musical language during the 1960s Kvandal was influenced by modernist trends, which led to a coarser use of dissonance and more experimental form. In the 1970s there was another shift of style, a return to a more moderate style which nevertheless retained some of the daring he had acquired during the 1960s. Some of his best works followed, including the hypnotic orchestral work Antagonia. Kvandal again avails himself of Norwegian folk-music as the very building bricks of his composition. He died in February 1999.

Johan Kvandal's String Quartet No. 3 begins with a theme taken from the mediaeval ballad De to søstre (‘The Two Sisters’), and this theme is used as a leitmotiv throughout the work. The original ballad is highly dramatic, describing a conflict of the worst sort between two sisters. The elder sister drowns the younger so that she may marry the latter's bridegroom; however the corpse is found and a harp is fashioned from the dead sister's body. When someone begins to play the harp it tells the story of what has happened, and the elder sister is forced to pay for the grotesque murder with her own life. Kvandal has attempted to capture the sombre atmosphere, and in the central section of the second movement it is as if we can hear the harp telling of the dark pool and the tragedy that happened there. The quartet follows classical sonata form and is firmly tonal throughout.

Alfred Janson enjoys a much freer relationship with tradition. He has guaranteed himself a place in modern Norwegian music history with several outstanding orchestral works and has displayed an extraordinary ability to adapt his style to the situation. Jazz elements form the basis for many of his works, although Janson's most important influences are drawn from so-called neo-expressionism. A strongly lyrical element pervade, Janson's work and gives his music human warmth and expressive power.

The String Quartet is a prime example of this. It is a reworking of music originally written for radio theatre. In 1976 Alfred Janson's close friend, the dramatist and director Sverre Udnæs, had the idea of a work comhining poetry and music for several actors and a string quartet, based on Tarjei Vesaas's collection Liv ved straumen (‘Life by the water’) of 1970. Text and music emerged as two separate elements, and as such the music suited further re-working. The Quartet is introspective in mood, unassuming and full of intensity.

Are Sandbakken
English version: Andrew Smith


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