Trojahn’s Great Second String Quartet

WER7383-2 - cover

AwardTROJAHN: String Quartet No. 2 with Clarinet & Mezzo-Soprano / Thorsten Johanns, cl; Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, mez; Minguet Quartett / Wergo 7383-2

Here is one of those recordings for which we should all bow down and be thankful that it exists. In a world that pays greater homage to formulaic modern music and especially the old-school stuff that gets rammed down our throats in buckets, we now have, at long last, a recording of a true modern masterpiece that was only written 40 years ago.

Manfred Trojahn (b. 1949) is not a composer who is well known, even within modern music circles, except for those in Germany. He began his studies in orchestral music, then took up the flute, composition and conducting, in that order. One of his principal composition teachers was György Ligeti, and it shows in his melodic structure as well as in his harmonic design. But unlike his other four string quartets, this one is truly an epic piece. As Trojahn himself says in the liner notes:

The commission was of course for a quartet with a conventional length of 15 to 20 minutes. But at some point, I noticed that what I was writing as a first movement began to take on dimensions with implications for the entire piece – if the first movement starts to grow toward 25 minutes, then you can imagine that the other movements will need to have similar durations to achieve a sense of balance… It is a very personal piece that is actually a kind of diary of my life at that time and immediately afterward.

Part of his inspiration came from Schoenberg’s Second Quartet, which used a soprano to sing texts by Stefan George. Trojahn added a mezzo-soprano and clarinet to the second, fourth and fifth movements of his quartet, using texts by the poet Georg Trakl, who died in a military hospital near the beginning of World War I at the age of 27. The poems that Trojahn chose were In ein altes Stammbuch (In an Old Family Album), Der Schlaf (Sleep) and In Venedig (In Venice).

Although Ligeti’s influence is quite evident, Trojahn has obviously developed his own style from the same basic approach. Indeed, some of the music in the opening movement almost sounds like a cross between Ligeti and Schoenberg, and I was delighted to hear a fairly strong underlying structure in this music. It goes somewhere; it says something coherent; it is not just a collection of “shocking sounds” as in the case of so much new music nowadays.

Yet of course this opening movement is very angst-filled and clearly not for the squeamish. There are no comfortable moments; it consists largely of sharp, jagged figures that explode in your ear, and when the music does recede from the sound barrier it is no less edgy or more comforting. The late jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw thought that his band’s theme song, Nightmare, was a reflection of Picasso’s painting Guernica, but for me the first movement of this quartet is much closer to Picasso than Shaw’s minor-key jazz piece. This movement does not, in fact, go on for 25 minutes, but it does go on for 17 and that is surely long enough to set the tone for the entire work. There is a full stop at 6:55, at which point the music becomes slower yet in pace and the musical expression turns more legato and less staccato, yet the mood remains dark although at this point Trojahn has clearly switches over from a Ligeti influence to that of Bartók before returning to the Ligeti mode. Yet again, no matter how rapid or overwhelmingly dissonant the music becomes, Trojahn has a clear eye on how the music is “built” both structurally and expressively, even when a series of repeated dissonant, rhythmic chords are played near the end of the movement.

Minguet QuartettInterestingly, the remaining movements are really not as long as the first. The second movement runs 8:36, the third 5:58, the fourth (and loudest) 1:21, the fifth 8:50, the sixth only 32 seconds(!) and the seventh 13:34. Clarinetist Thorsten Johanns is an excellent musician with a rich, liquid tone and great expressivity. Mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner has a nice tone, an overripe vibrato, yet good expression in her interpretation of Trakl’s texts. The words of the first poem, in English, are as follows:

You keep coming back, melancholy,
O meekness of the lonely soul.
A golden day is glowing at the end.
Humbly bends to the pain of
Sounding of pleasant sound and soft madness.
See, it’s already getting dark.
The night returns and sues
And another one suffers.
Shivering under autumnal stars
The head bends lower every year.

One thing that struck me was how Trojahn had the string quartet drop out completely in the opening lines of this poem; the only sounds you hear for more than a minute are just the mezzo and clarinet before the strings return, softly, underneath them. Perhaps because he was writing here for a voice, Trojahn’s music is more lyrical and, in places, even more tonal than usual, although the astringent chords played by the quartet beneath her are atonal indeed. It almost sounds, in a way, like “Mahler meets Schoenberg.” With the third movement, which again is purely instrumental, we return to Ligeti’s style. The music here is, if anything, even edgier and more biting than in the first movement.

The brief fourth movement again features the soprano and clarinet, but this time in loud, edgy music that matches the previous movement. Here the text is:

Cursed you dark poisons
White sleep!
This very strange garden
Twilight trees
Filled with snakes, moths,
Spiders, bats.
Stranger! Your lost shadow
In the Sunset,
A dark corsair
In the salty sea of tribulation.
Fluttering white birds on the night hem
Over falling cities
Of steel.

In the fifth movement, which follows without a break, the mezzo sings:

Silence in the room at night.
The chandelier flickers silver
Before the singing breath
Of the lonely;
Magic rose cloud.
Blackish swarm of flies
Darkens the stone room
And it stares from agony
The head of the golden day
The homeless.
The sea stays motionless.
Star and blackish ride
Disappeared on the canal.
Child, your sickly smile
Followed me quietly in my sleep.

Here the music returns to a more legato style and a more tonal bias, but the voice and clarinet do not perform together as in the second movement. Rather, then alternate with each other, both voice and clarinet backed by high, edgy sustained notes in the violins. The very short sixth movement acts more like a brief, edgy interlude between the fifth and seventh, which opens with loud, edgy string tremolos before moving into much more abstract territory. Despite some lyrical interludes, the underlying tension remains consistent throughout the movement which even the frequent pauses in the musical flow do not disperse.

This is truly a masterpiece, one of those works that bear repeated listening to catch all the cross-references and continuation of musical material, brilliantly played (and recorded) by the Minguet Quartett.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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