Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s Strange String Quartets

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WP 2019 - 2GUDMUNDSEN-HOLMGREEN: String Quartets Nos. 1-6 / Nordic String Quartet / Dacapo 8.226217

I’ve had occasion to review Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s orchestral works and chamber music already on this blog, the second of which includes his String Quartets Nos. 10 (subtitled “New Ground”) and 11 (“No Ground”). This CD is the first of a projected series covering all of his quartets played by the Nordic String Quartet.

Although this album does indeed contain the first six quartets, they are presented on the CD out of sequence. The actual performing list is Quartet No. 5, followed by Quartets Nos. 1, 6, 3, 4 and 2. I’m not sure why they were distributed this way, but they are. As the liner notes point out, his scores were to some extent based on post-war serialism, in which he injected his own laconic, simplified but strongly tongue-in-cheek forms, creating what may best be described as 12-tone nuttiness. His music is a modern example of Dada taken to its furthest extremes. Broken melodies and rhythms permeate everything he composed, and he took these details to extremes. You’ll either like his music or hate it; there seems to be no middle ground. I personally find it witty and uplifting in a fun-house-mirror sort of way.

Quartet No. 5, subtitled “Step by Step,” is a perfect example. It begins in a chipper, almost manic mood but ends in black gloom, in between featuring his usual mosaic of little snatches of melody juxtaposed against one another. A more academic and analytic description can be found in the liner notes, to wit:

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.

So there’s your Music Theory lesson for the day. From a purely auditory sense, the structure, odd as it is, can easily be picked out by the attentive listener, the music becoming much slower in tempo and darker in mood just before the 12-minute mark. It also becomes sparser in texture and moodier, sounding like a second-movement “Lento” although it is a continuous one-movement work.

Interestingly, the opening of the one-movement first quartet not only sounds like a continuation of the fifth but is much more melodic than his later music became. Written in 1959 before he changed his mode of writing, it is more lyrical in the manner of Bartók and not nearly as abrasive in its harmony, although in the development section that begins just before the five-minute mark there are clear indications of where he was headed. The music becomes edgier towards the end.

The one-movement Quartet No. 6, “Parting” (1983), is if anything more abstract from the very beginning than the fifth. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has the viola play a note and then “bounce” it on the strings in increasing rhythm, like a rubber ball dropped into a canister that bounces around until it settles, except that this pattern is repeated ad infinitum throughout the quartet at irregular intervals. At 9:25, he introduces a tempo and rhythm that sounds like a sort of bizarre polka. It’s typical Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, giving mixed signals. The perky rhythm tells you that he is kidding, but the dark harmonies and mood tell you he is not. Just absorb it and move on.

The five-movement Quartet No. 3, also from 1959, is subtitled “Five Small Studies,” and here, too once can hear Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music moving towards a more abstract, Dada-like feel, despite short passages in which he coalesces around a specific but truncated melody. The mood here, however, is unrelentingly dark, almost menacing, despite the preponderance of slow-moving themes. It almost sounds like a swarm of bees or hornets moving in slow motion.

The four-movement Quartet No. 2 (1959), subtitled Quartetto facile, opens with an “Andantino.” Here Gudmundsen-Holmgreen seems, for better or worse, to be completely serious in his presentation, and this seriousness continues into what might otherwise be a light-hearted “Andantino.” Interestingly, at this earlier stage of his career he used more regular rhythms even when the music was bitonal or atonal in construction, and there seemed to be much less tongue-in-cheek humor, although the repeated tremolos near the end of the third movement “Andante” almost seem to be mocking the listener, and this pattern continues, in a stronger rhythm, into the opening of the fourth-movement “Allegro.” This movement is developed much more strongly along “normal” classical lines, something the composer would dispense of in his later work.

These are splendid first recordings of these works, played with commitment and razor-sharp attacks by the Nordic Quartet. Recommended for those who like this highly unusual composer.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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