Complete String Quartets Vol. 1
Complete String Quartets Vol. 1
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Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (1932–2016) wrote string quartets all his life. Fourteen in all; the first three dating from 1959, the last ones from 2013. Launching its complete cycle of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s string quartets, the Nordic String Quartet here presents the first six quartets: Childlike wonder meets cynical comment, cliché meets originality, the ecstatic is combined with the ascetic – Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s string quartets are full of such clashes. We start at one point and end at a totally different one. Never fusty, often entertaining, always adamant.
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Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen: String Quartet No. 2, Quartetto Facile (1959) - I - Andantino. Opført af Nordic String Quartet.
Complete String Quartets, vol. 1
PELLE GUDMUNDSEN-HOLMGREEN (1932–2016)
by Jens Cornelius
Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen stands among the leading Scandinavian composers of the past half-century, a unique voice from the generation born in the inter-war years. In his early works, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music took its point of departure in heroes like Bartók and Stravinsky. Around 1960 a phase began where he was influenced by post-war serialism. He rejected this path a few years later and instead became a pace-setter in ‘the New Simplicity’, as it was called in Denmark: laconic, simplified music which in Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s hands could be provocatively absurd. Often a marked, black-humoured pessimism rears its head under the influence of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Childlike wonder meets cynical comment, cliché meets originality, the ecstatic is combined with the ascetic – Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music is full of such clashes. Never fusty, often entertaining, always adamant.
STRING QUARTETS NO. 1–6
by Steen Pade
A look at the years in which the six string quartets on this release came into being shows how illustrative they are of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s development as a composer. The first three are all from the year 1959. After eight years, he returns to the genre with the addition of the fourth quartet. And after a further 15 years he is apparently smitten by the potential of the string quartet once more: the first version of the fifth quartet is from 1982, and while he is writing the sixth, he revises the fifth quartet for the first time, but it seems as if he did not complete the vision, since the final second vision of ‘Step by Step’ (the one presented here) dates from 2003. After this, he continued to write quartets – 14 in all – until 2013, three years before he died.
Step by Step begins with unrelenting energy – also with a touch of hope – and ends just under 19 minutes later in black gloom and with a resigned, despairing gesture. In the meantime, we hear hymns, ‘cries and whispers’, pulsating life in dense formations of notes, sudden stops and silent sighs – normally initiated by ever-new beginnings, attempts to recreate the optimism of the beginning. This is music that has to do with movement – we start at one point and end at a totally different one. What has taken place in between, and how is the composer working here, how does he pull it off?
First and foremost it is a forward movement ‘step by step’, as indicated by the title. We hear a mosaic of various snatches of music that take over from each other in a ritual where the energetic snatches are gradually replaced by and give way to something more contemplative. Repeated listening, however, reveals that we can already sense the despair in that initial energy. It is as if a shadow of what is later going to appear is already present from the outset. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen is able to establish this artifice because the various events en route are anchored in a particular pattern of notes he had been working with since the late 1970s. A way of organising tonal material is this: Around a central note (the middle note of the piano, D) he unfolds a grid in a scale-like symmetry. On each side of this D the notes which the grid supplies rise and fall respectively so that the intervals between the notes gradually increase and then decrease. First two semitones, then a whole tone, then a minor and a major third. After this the music goes the opposite way: minor third, whole tone, semitone until we end on A flat and at a distance of an octave plus an augmented fourth from the original D. On the basis of our tonal system’s 12 notes, the grid uses 10 – the notes F and B are not used, and there are in fact a number of works by Gudmundsen-Holmgreen where one can search in vain for these two notes. The grid is not a tone row in the Schönbergian sense, rather a mode in the Messiaenesque manner, a limitation of the tonal material used by Gudmundsen-Holmgreen in most of his compositions since the early 1970s, the limitation being that the individual tones are locked into the particular position in the octave determined by the grid through its symmetry of intervals around the central tone D. In a more detailed sense than the overall formal pattern, the quartet thus develops the idea of ‘step by step’. Namely in the relation to the various patterns into which the grid ‘step by step’ can be organised – patterns that are often tangible and simple melodies, such as the hymn-like disposition we hear snatches of right from the beginning. Or the set chorale that spreads out across the closing five minutes. The point that creates unity across these wide-ranging elements is that we involuntarily recognise the notes which, locked to their own positions in the grid, have an underlying identity in the figure, theme or chord they enter into in the individual episode.
From the mid-1960s onwards, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s works position widely different elements in a space where the form deals with how (or how little) they can be made to talk to each other. Spectacularly in the piece Plateaux pour deux (1970), where a cello and two squeeze-bulb horns attempt to come into contact with each other. Such objets trouvés assume a different nature within the more abstract form of the string quartet. In the fifth string quartet, the ghosts of historical ancestors of the genre haunt the work, colouring every note, so to speak. Bartók’s irregular time signatures meet up with the static snatches of scales from Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for string quartet. The intense, polyphonic texture we know from the late Beethoven quartets is enclosed in dense clouds of notes that remind one of Ligeti and the American minimalists. The miracle of the quartet is that everything at the same time, and unmistakably, sounds like Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen – no other composer would have precisely that sound. To the connoisseur, two bars are enough to identify the person who wrote the music; no one else could have written this fantastic work, which must be considered a major work in the Danish string quartet tradition.
The artistic idea that underlies Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s juxtaposition of widely different elements is strongly inspired by absurd theatre, with Samuel Beckett as a key figure – something the composer never tired of emphasising. With regard to the constant run-ups and re-starts that only end up with despair and resignation in the fifth string quartet, it is hard not to think of Endgame, where the servant, Clov, repeatedly tries to climb a ladder but falls down every time.
The association with Beckett is perhaps even stronger in the sixth string quartet, Parting, where from the very beginning we find ourselves in a landscape of remnants, a ‘wasteland’. The quartet also has to do with movement, that of farewell, which is also present in the small building blocks of this quartet. This is already the case in the gesture that we hear in the first bar and that is present like a ritornelle throughout the quartet, a figure that is audibly reminiscent of the sight of the stone we throw into the water and the spreading ripples that fade away, a kind of composed-out echo. Parting: the process where we say goodbye, put to music with exclamations that die away, hold their hands to their mouth because they are opposed or cannot muster the strength to continue, leaving behind listening silence. With natural sounds, where heights and depths mirror each other, observe each other, turn away and wonder, and with the composer’s question as to how little is necessary for a sequence to be kept going and stay alive.
The sixth string quartet also builds on the tonal grid, in which Gudmundsen-Holmgreen finds his objects – here inspired by the sounds of nature. Violent and overwhelming, where the music just over halfway through its course bursts into the cries of migrating birds, this time sustainedly and repeatedly, so that also a mirror is evoked in the deep register of the instruments. Until this outburst also fades away, leaving us with the farewell of the final echoes.
The fourth string quartet is one big natural sound. The composer once told me how this short, completely static and motionless work was inspired by the chirping of cicadas in Greece. The experience of dozing off to the constant, enervating formation of cicadas that precisely resemble the tonal clusters of close intervals in which the music rests. Only towards the end does a small change take place, the sound grows a little louder, the intervals widen slightly and send us memories of a more familiar harmony of triads. The string quartet is a strong, simple expression of the minimalism which at this time in the late-1960s has its breakthrough even with composers who had grown up in the shadow of the complexity of the modernism of the 1950s.
The three early string quartets show in their separate ways Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s artistic point of departure. The first single-movement quartet deals with the harmonic implications of a twelve-tone row. Quartet no. 2, Quartetto facile in four movements, organised in a traditional pattern with the scherzo-like second movement followed by a slower third movement, has thematic material which is present in all the movements. Narrow intervals that expand and contract once more in a way that owes a debt to Bartók’s motif technique, but that maybe is also a portent of the grid that emerges almost 15-20 years later? In the conclusion of the third movement, quiet trills form a static sound image that simultaneously shows the influence of Bartók and points forward towards the motionless cicada noise of the fourth quartet. The third quartet concentrates the musical expression into five small momentary images, each of which deals with a single idea, and that can remind one of Webern’s Six Bagatelles for string quartet, Op. 9. The music sounds initially complex, but in its rhythmical simplicity it pays homage to a basically different aesthetics of perception than that common in the modernism of the 1950s.
Steen Pade, 2018