The Kazakh String Quartet Impresses With Intense Music

Kazakh Strng Quartet

SAGYRBAYULY: Adai (arr. Uzembayeva). ZHUBANOVA: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2. TOLEGEN: Saltanat (arr. Shildebayev). ZHAIYM: String Quartet No. 1. QAZANGAPULY: Kos Besar (arr. Arman). ABDIMOMYN: Yerke Sylkym (arr. Uzembayeva) / Kazekh State String Quartet / Divox CDX-21501-6

Here’s something different: an album of music composed by Kazakhstan musicians over a period of almost 200 years, starting with famed 19th-century folk musician and dombra player Kurmangasy Sagyrbayuly, whose Adai will perk you up and grab your attention. Evidently composed for the dombra, it is arranged here for string quartet and playing with considerable verve by the Kazekh State String Quartet.

Yet even the more formal compositions of Gaziza Zhubanova (1927-1993), a People’s Artist of the USSR, has much of the same rhythmic verve and harmonic modality, only tidied up and presented in formal dress. In addition to the two string quartets presented here, she also wrote three operas, symphonies and concertos, four ballets, six oratorios, five cantatas and more than 30 chamber works. I was particularly struck by her ability to create moods even within the context of her formal structures, at times leaning towards folk melodies and at others towards a strict musical development. This is particularly evident in the slow movement of the first quartet, where Zhubanova employs a repeated sequence of pizzicato chords by the two violins while the cello and viola weave a spell in the foreground, sometimes playing apposite lines and sometimes combining with each other, after which the violins join the fray and the music picks up in both tempo and intensity, almost going “outside” the established tonality as jazz musicians like to put it. A bit later it’s the viola and second violin which play the pizzicato chords while the first violin and cello play against each other some three octaves apart. In the last movement, very terse at only 2:20, she pushed the envelope even further with astringent chords and choppy, almost abrasive rhythms, yet maintains a cohesive discourse.

Our next composer, Mombekov Tolegan (1918-1997), was also a virtuoso dombra player, and the composition presented here, Saltanat, is also arranged for string quartet. This piece, though quieter and less energetic than Adai, still retains its folk-like harmonies and melodic shape; the piece is played almost completely in pizzicato.


Two views of a dombra

Arman Zhaiym is the youngest composer presented here, having been born in 1983. He graduated at age 18 and entered the Kazakh National Conservatory the same year; he has already written more than 100 works in different genres. Needless to say, his string quartet is thoroughly modern in outlook and harmony, using far more atonality and close chords than his predecessors, yet it, too, maintains a high energy level based on traditional Kazakh folk rhythms. The first movement, in particular, has a savage intensity that must be heard to be fully appreciated, though it later morphs into a hypnotic sing-song pattern at a slower tempo, ending with weird, soft flutters in the strings’ upper range. The lively yet edgy second movement could easily be mistaken for a folk dance in energy if not in its form—though it, too, morphs into a quieter piece roughly halfway through. The third movement, nominally a scherzo, has nothing light or jolly about it but is rather the most consistently savage movement of them all, while the fourth, marked “Doloroso,” maintains its sorrowful mood from start to finish. It’s an unusual but emotionally powerful ending for this strange work.

Following Zhaiym we plunge backwards in time to the Kos Besar of Tattimbet Qazangapuly (or Kazangapuly, as it is sometimes spelled, 1815-1862). He was a diplomat and the head of a Kazakh state, a native kuishi composer and yet another dombra player. His piece is in a gentle, relaxed medium tempo, sounding equally folk-like and perhaps also a bit repetitive in musical material.

Zhubanova’s second string quartet begins more moodily than the first, with soft but abrasive chords emphasizing an edginess in the tone of the quartet’s instruments before moving out into equally mysterious but more lyrical passages. In the first movement she also used quiet pauses as a way of building tension. Indeed, the whole of this long movement (11:43) seems to me comprised of varying episodes of sound rather than a cohesive message; Zhubanova seems to be telling her story in allegory rather than in a linear fashion, although in the latter stages of his movement the strings do maintain a sustained and intense mood using long-held notes. By contrast the second movement, though 5:15 long, seems almost like a brief episode by comparison, yet here Zhubanova used an even wider array of string techniques to create a slithering world of modal glissando and portamento passages interspersed with on-the-edge bowing to create an emotional rift. And once again, she used space between sections of the movement to create suspense and heighten tension. This movement, despite beginning with edgy, rapid passages, also shifts gears into slow, moody music like the quartet of Arman Zhaiym. It closes out with a flurry of strange-sounding, soft string tremolos.

The recital closes out with Yerke Sylkym, another dombra piece transcribed for string quartet, by Zheldibaev Abdimomyn (1934 – ), who has written more than 70 works for Kazakh national instruments. Like the opening number, this one is also a peppy piece, played in G minor.

Overall, this was a pleasant and unexpected surprise for me, and I daresay that those of you who enjoy unusual Eastern European music will find it as satisfying as I did!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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