Leistner-Mayer’s Psychotropic Quartets


LEISTNER-MAYER: String Quartets Nos. 5-7 / Sojka Quartet / Tyxart 17090

You never know where startling new music is going to come from. Here’s a Bohemian composer with a very British-sounding name, Roland Leistner-Mayer, whose string quartets sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before in your life.

Leistner-Mayer, born in 1945, studied composition with Harald Genzmer and Günter Bialas at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Munich. Among his awards won is a distinction in the Alfredo Casella 1970 competition and third prize in the 1996 Swiss International Competition for Composition. Yet he distinced himself early on, say the liner notes, “from fashionable trends and avant-garde experimentation in favor of a forceful, expressive and authentic diction. Form is for him the result rather than the means of expression…From the time of his early string quartets (Nos. 2 and 3) on, he has occasionally moved towards a Bohemian idiom, similar to Leoš Janáček, audible in the rhapsodic themes, eruptive expansion of form, and a tendency to the ‘informal’ which are the main features of his music.”

All of which sounds very nice, but none of which actually describes the strangeness of his aesthetic. Listening to the Fifth Quartet’s opening movement, for instance, one is immediately struck by the odd fluttering of the violins, following which the viola and cello play an overlying modal theme; a few bars in, and the fluttering figures seem fair to overwhelm the ongoing musical discourse, although the broader theme keeps trying to break into the conversation. This is truly bizarre, mind-altering music, and even when the fluttering figures dissipate and the broad theme is developed, Leistner-Mayer introduces a pungent, stabbing figure played in a downward plunge by the violins, which suddenly drag the music into strange harmonic territory filled with angst and passion. This is absolutely extraordinary music; I haven’t heard its like anywhere. It then turns out that the stabbing figure is itself developed, with the volume and intensity somewhat ameliorated by a theme in the minor that tries to assert itself and fails. This music speaks of a great internal struggle, a struggle of both mind and spirit (jeez, I’m starting to sound like WGUC now!), which ends abruptly. But the second-movement “Scherzo” is no less intense, no less intricately constructed or moving, the key continually shifting from within the chord positions as the music moves along. A strange pizzicato passage is heard in the middle, followed by a broad theme played on the viola against it. Half the quartet then plays tremolos while the other half (cello and one of the violins) continue to develop the music above it. Yes, there is a certain kinship here to Janáček’s quartets, but not as close as the liner notes would have you believe. This music is really “out there,” so speak, pushing the envelope in a strange but wonderful way.

Even the slow movement has its quirks. Ostensibly in D minor (or D modal, take your pick), the constant fluidity of the harmony keeps shifting us up and down chromatically as well as shifting us into other keys, including one or two notes in the relative major. In this way, Leistner-Mayer writes music that by definition is “tonal” while in fact it is constantly in a state of flux. The strange passage in this movement beginning at 5:58 is a perfect case in point. The last movement, marked “Poco vivace,” begins as a fairly conventional-sounding piece, but 37 seconds in and it’s already shifting and morphing into something more complex and startling. Nonetheless, this movement, at least, follows a fairly recognizable rhythmic pattern (mostly in 6/8) and so is easier for untrained ears to follow. It’s also not nearly as complex harmonically as the preceding three movements.

My general impression of Leistner-Mayer’s music is that it is comprised of musical labyrinths. He seems to run into walls or traps he can’t get out of, yet somehow, miraculously, finds an alternate escape route and takes it, only to find himself in another trap, find another escape route, etc. on through to the end of the piece. Music critic Christoph Schüren is quoted in the booklet as saying that “The great inner complexity of the artistic experience does not have to result in greater structural complexity. Quite the opposite: Roland Leistner-Mayer has searched unwaveringly for the simplest and most direct expression of the internal necessities.” Again, the liner notes are misleading. True, this music isn’t nearly as dense as the tangled scores of a Ligeti, Crumb or Penderecki, but “complexity” isn’t always measured by how many notes you throw in or how dense the musical texture is. Complexity can also come from structurally “simple” building blocks. The music of Thelonious Monk, for instance, is structurally simple compared to most contemporary classical music, yet it is extremely difficult to play properly because the rhythm is continualy broken up by stiffish figures that alternate with the swing, and the harmonic progression often moves from simple to complex in the blink of an eye. Similar things may be said for Leistner-Mayer’s scores.

In the Sixth Quartet, subtitled Seven Unbrave Bagatelles, Leistner-Mayer assumes a similar pattern, creating swirling figures in G minor that take unexpected detours into dark emotional territory. The modus operandi is the same, but the result is oddly different. This first movement, by the way, is only 2:33 long; Leistner-Mayer doesn’t believe in long-winded diatribes but, rather, says what he has to say and then moves on. Although his music has a somewhat more conventional form in regards to rhythm and pacing, I felt that it also had a certain kinship to the music of Leif Segerstam. This is particularly true of the second movement here, marked “Hinter dem Fenster, ‘Behind the Window,’ Allegro moderato,” in which the string tremolos become part and parcel of the development. The third movement, titled “View of the Mountain,” is absolutely terrifying; perhaps Leistner-Mayer was on the verge of falling off a cliff! The composer describes this quartet as not standing up to ignorance and insecurity, but rather of “repression and pushing aside of these questions into the prison of Time.” Thus each of these musical vignettes are meant to represent someone fleeing danger and allowing fear to override reason. Needless to say, most of this music represents stark, blind terror. Only the slow fifth movement, “Ricordanza: Larghetto,” escapes this mood, presenting us with a remarkably soothing melody in B-flat, albeit with his usual excursions into neighboring keys, including A minor. The sixth movement, “Glimpse through the gateway,” begins with almost humorous upward glissandi that eventually give way to a mysterious theme that keeps breaking up and shifting themes around. In the last movement, “Passare in…Arioso allotanandosi,” we hear a nice relaxed fugue, “unbrave” perhaps yet with deep feeling and sensitivity.

The Seventh Quartet, like the fifth, has no program. Subtitled the “Andante Quartet,” it is clearly the most lyrical of the three and the one least involved in angst. Indeed, the first movement in G-flat major is so relaxed that when the fast, edgier passage comes around just before the three-minute mark, it almost takes us by surprise. Yes, it’s still emotional but there’s a bit less of an edge to the music. It’s not as hair-raising or existential as the outbursts in the previous two quartets, although it does play a major role in the development section. Eventually the lyrical theme returns, infused at times by more tremolos, leading to a quiet conclusion. The second movement does indeed have more of an edge to it, as one would expect—apparently, Leistner-Mayer doesn’t believe in “jolly” scherzi—but there’s not quite as much angst as in the Fifth Quartet, and the secondary theme is actually quite pleasant (although brief). The slow third movement, in G-flat minor, begins with four broad quarter notes played by the strings in an almost marcia funebre movement. This leads in turn to another lyrical but somewhat obscure melody, with the funeral march feeling coming and going as it progresses. The slow development of the themes and their great solemnity also contribute to this feeling. Part of the development also includes a very lyrical cello passage beginning at 6:18. The last movement, “Presto precipitando,” tries to recapture some of the angst found in the previous two quartets, but is again tempered by greater lyricism. Perhaps we should call it quasi-angst.

In all this music, the Sojka Quartet is right on the mark in terms of both technical security and emotional commitment. They have apparently had a good relationship with the composer, and in fact premiered the Seventh Quartet in Pilsen on February 23 of this year. This is a great CD; you need to hear it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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