Karnavičius’ String Quartets

ODE1351-2 cover

KARNAVIČIUS: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2 / Vilnius String Qrt / Ondine ODE 1351-2

These are the first-ever recordings of the string quartets of Jurgis Karnavičius (1884-1941), a Lithuanian composer who studied in St. Petersburg with Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov and fought in World War I. In fact, his first string quartet heard on this record, written in 1913, did not have its premiere until three years later when he was already at the front.

The music is tonal but surprisingly knotty in texture, an interesting work if not really a ground-breaking one. Although based on the kind of structure that Brahms used, neither the themes nor the harmonic sequences are Brahmsian; in fact, this quartet sounds more like early Martinů  except with a Lithuanian “accent.” It also helps that the Vilnius Quartet “feels” this music in their blood and plays it with vigor and a lean, bright tone, which is perfect for Eastern European string music. There are all sorts of little twists and turns in the music, even in the second movement, that mark it as music that is more inspired than written to formula. At the 4:50 mark, the leisurely tempo suddenly stops and turns into an “Allegro” of vivacious rhythm, very much based on folk music. The last movement is also a surprise: lively, as you expect of the last movement of a quartet, but not too fast and brimming over with interesting musical ideas, some in the minor. There’s also a fascinating descending chromatic passage around the 1:50 mark.

The second quartet, written in 1917 when he was still in captivity (and could have been performed by the string quartet he formed while in the detainment camp), was premiered after he had returned to Russia—now the Soviet Union—in a concert sponsored by the Contemporary Russian Music Propaganda Society in 1923. The first movement has a much sadder tone about it than anything in the first quartet; the music is clearly deeper and more personal. The second movement, however, is energetic and much happier music; but then, at the 9:38 mark, it suddenly turns slower and sadder…and the slow movement is sadder yet. The last movement, also not a very fast “Allegro,” has a more positive demeanor than the preceding slow movement.

Interesting pieces, then, if not quite music of genius. Well worth hearing, however.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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