Habbestad’s “Four Stations”

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QUATTRO STAZIONI / HABBESTAD: String Quartets Nos. 1, “Quattro Stazioni” & 2.1 Clarinet Quintet, “Air d’été suédois.”1,2 Divertimento for Clarinet & Piano2,3 / 1Vertavo String Quartet; 2Björn Nyman, cl; 3Sveinung Belland, pno / Lawo LWC1193

This disc, scheduled for release in June, features the music of Kjell Habbestrad, a 65-year-old Norwegian composer who studied with Olav Anton Thommessen and Finn Mortensen. He was also active as an organist between 1974 and 1987; since 2013 he has been a Professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music.

Since I had to work from downloads for this disc and did not have a booklet, the only notes I can give you are what Habbestad himself has said about this CD:

The title of this album refers to String Quartet No. 1, which has the same name. But it can also stand as an all-inclusive name for the four compositions represented on the album, four stations on my journey as a composer, four different approaches to musical expression in time and space. The journey begins in 1989 with String Quartet No. 1 — Quattro stazioni, and ends in 2013 with String Quartet No. 2. Between these stations are Air d’été suédois for clarinet quintet (2009) and Divertimento for clarinet and piano (2010).

Habbestad’s music is a bit different from the normal “edgy” style which seems to have taken over nowadays. Not that there aren’t edgy moments, but it’s not all about edginess. The first movement of the String Quartet No. 1 has almost a Middle Eastern belly dance sound to the rhythm along with modal harmonies staying mostly in the key of A, albeit with little chromatic swells upward to vary the sound. I was particularly fascinated by the way Habbestad used the cello as a timekeeper, much like the string bass in a jazz ensemble, though the rhythms are nothing like jazz. He also has the cello’s rhythm move in a slightly different manner from the rest of the quartet. The second movement is more lyrical, and here the tonality shifts around subtly but noticeably with the strings interweaving various figures that apparently neither resolve nor move towards any end point, but simply continue to morph throughout the movement. Eventually, the music becomes quite agitated, a rhythm appears and the harmony continues to move around.

The third movement, “Misterioso,” is indeed mysterious but also somewhat edgy in its own way. It’s elusive music, hard to describe in words, but effective. The fourth movement, titled “Giocoso,” is scarcely a joking piece; rather, it is edgy and rather sinister. Apparently, the Norwegians have an entirely different view of “Giocoso” from the Italians or even the Germans. It is characterized by rapidly-moving triplets played against eighths, the triplets disappearing as the piece moves along with occasional pizzicato from the cello and viola. At the 2:25 mark, abrasive half-tones rub against each other as the forward movement resumes.

The second quartet opens with an abrasive chord, but when the music proper begins it actually leans a bit more towards tonality than its predecessor; on the contrary, this first movement is more lyrical and flowing, and I felt that the structure was better. In the middle, the tempo slows down and stops before resuming with the development section, and a fine one it is, too. Habbestad then sets up a rocking 6/8 rhythm which leads to another subject which is then also developed; at 6:04, another, faster rhythm appears as the quartet gallops forward; another pause, and we move to an even slower and more melodic theme that goes on until the end. The first movement then leads without a break into the second, “Adagio molto e tranquillo,” and this, too, features a broad but bitonal melodic line with luftpausen in it. Once again, however, the structure is fascinating and the piece holds together pretty well. The music becomes ever slower at the end.

The third movement is an explosive Scherzo, and this time there is a certain amount of “Giocoso” in it in the form of a somewhat galumphing theme and odd halts in the forward progress. There are also brief passages in double time. The “Allegro energico” finale is a sort of perpetual motion piece with string tremolos and odd little viola tunes interjected into the ensemble. At around the 5:20 mark the tempo slows down to a crawl, and this is how it ends.

The Clarinet Quintet is likewise more tonal and moody, with qualities very similar to the second string quartet. The music is equally good but, to my ears, less surprising and original. By now, I had gotten used to Habbestad’s style and began to realize that what had seemed surprising in the earlier works was a gimmick that he likes to use frequently. Moreover, I felt that the piece became rather bogged down by the nine-minute mark.

In the Divertimento, Habbestad opens with piano rumbles as the clarinet comes in very low, quickly rising to a screaming high note before settling down into the odd theme. This piece, I felt, was much more original and interesting than the quintet; it is also in a different style from all the other pieces on this CD, being in a more consistent tempo and leaning towards tonality although it only occasionally touches down on a home key. Habbestad also writes very interestingly for the piano here; the keyboard part could almost be a solo sonata in itself, with the clarinet line simply added above it. In fact, the clarinet line could also have been a separate piece by itself. Only occasionally do the two instruments work together, and even when they do it almost sounds as if the clarinet was improvising its music above the piano part. At the 7:45 mark, we suddenly hear high, stabbing figures played by the clarinet, after which the two instruments finally work—at least intermittently—in tandem. We end on an upward clarinet glissando and a staccato piano chord.

A pretty interesting recording, then, on which only the Clarinet Quintet struck me as a weak piece.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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