Salzedo’s Wonderful String Quartets

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SALZEDO: String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 & 10 / Archaeus Quartet / MPR 104

Leonard López Salzedo (1921-2000), the British composer with the Latin name, is barely known in America but was quite famous and popular in England during the late 1950s and 1960s. In addition to writing the score for the 1958 Hammer horror film The Revenge of Frankenstein and the Divertimento for Three Trumpets and Three Trombones, used as the theme song of BBC-TV’s Open University program from the 1960s through the 1990s, he also penned Rendezvous for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra for the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra’s experimental album of third stream pieces, Collaboration!, and a jazz-influenced ballet score titled The Witch Boy, both of them wonderful music.

These three string quartets, written between 1942 (No. 1) when he was only 21 years old and 1997 (No, 10), by which time he was 76, are fascinating works combining lyrical themes with modern harmonies and a certain “edge” to the music that many of his famous contemporaries, among them Britten and Tippett, lacked. For all the great things the others did, they did not use syncopation nearly as much as he did. There is nothing jazzy about most of this music, but one still feels the tensile strength of Salzedo’s syncopations within a classical context.

Interestingly, both the first and tenth quartets are one-movement works, although in the former one clearly feels the progression from one tempo and set of motives to the next as if it were indeed a multi-movement piece. The fifth quartet, dating from 1950-52 but revised in 1995, uses even closer harmonies, at times sounding like tone clusters in the background above which the first violin plays a somewhat conventional-sounding melody, but once again Salzedo uses crisp, biting figures to interject the musical progression. At times in this quartet, one almost feels as if he was being purposely ornery in his juxtaposition of themes and either chromatic or modal harmonies, yet he always keeps his eye on the long view of the music.

Throughout, the playing of the Archaeus Quartet is right on the mark. They not only feel the rhythms and the harmonic progressions properly, but give strongly emotional readings of these scores. The fifth quartet, divided into two sections of unequal length, begins its second half with a particularly eerie-sounding modal theme played very high up in the first violin’s range in long, sustained notes. Later, the viola enters playing a repeated rhythmic motif in eighth notes in 5/4 time while the cello plays occasional plucked notes below and the other strings interject their own ideas before they coalesce around the rhythmic motif as a sort of ground bass to the development. At the 4:45 mark, one of the violins plays a very syncopated theme that, in this instance, does have a slight jazz feel to it. Later on, the music becomes strongly rhythmic in a quite aggressive way, pushing the almost Moorish-sounding harmonies aggressively, then picking up the tempo and sounding almost like Enescu’s Romanian music. No two ways about it, Salzedo was a very individual and creative composer! How he has managed to fly under the radar outside of Great Britain remains a mystery to me.

The tenth quartet clearly marks an advance even on the fifth. Its music is much more abstract in form, pushing its aggressive rhythms forward in a manner not unlike that of rock music, but without a rock beat. Salzedo was clearly influenced by the more contemporary sounds he was hearing around him, but also, I think, to some extent, by Stravinsky, its perpetuum mobile opening eventually interrupted and replaced by a slow section (remember, this, too, is written in one movement). The concluding Allegro moderato’s opening section is played entirely pizzicato, there being a canon section in the middle played in a more conventional bowed fashion.

No two ways about it, this is essential listening. Salzedo was a simply wonderful composer whose work surely deserves wider dissemination.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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