Jurgis Karnavičius’ String Quartets

ODE1387-2 cover

KARNAVIČIUS: String Quartets Nos. 3 & 4 / Vilnius String Qrt: Dalia Kuznecovaité, Artűras Šilalė, vln; Kristina Anusevičiūtė, vla; Deividas Dumčius, cel / Ondine ODE 1387-2

Jurgis Karnavičius (1884-1941) was a Lithuanian composer not well known outside his native country who wrote, among other works, four string quartets, and like so many composers whose creative period passed from the late Romantic era to the modern style, his work is often divided into two entirely different stylistic periods. His first two quartets, previously recorded by the Vilnius Quartet and issued by Ondine, were typically Romantic works which, though well crafted, held little interest for me, but these last two quartets, dating from 1922 and 1925, are in an entirely different form and harmonic language and thus are quite interesting.

Which is not to say that Karnavičius completely forsook melody in these quartets; indeed, the slow opening of the first movement of the Quartet No. 3 is quite lyrical in its own way, just not overly Romantic in the Rachmaninov sense. One might characterize this music by saying that the music leans towards out-of-tonality moments without fully indulging itself in spiky harmonies. Still, this is a vast improvement over the first two quartets. The slow movement of the Quartet No. 3 reminded me of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, just a bit less edgy.

Karnavičius also uses some traditional Eastern European rhythms, particularly in the fast movements (i.e., the second movement of the Third Quartet) which gives his music an authentic ethnic flavor.

If anything, the fourth quartet is even more modern in harmony and melodic contour than the third. Apparently, in the years between 1922 and 1925 Karnavičius chose to modernize his style still further, and as a result the finished product is even more in line with contemporary music than the third quartet. He is just a comfortable interweaving melodic lines into his work, only now the melody and the harmony move together rather than sounding like separate parts. The first movement of this quartet is particularly excellent, taking unexpected twists and turns which tells me that he relied a bit more here on inspiration rather than just following regular form. It’s not that the themes are too juxtaposed so much as that they are simply surprising and different; in taking a less predictable approach, Karnavičius upsets our expectations by conversing with himself, using a modern harmonic framework in which to do so. His quartets are traditional in the sense that one hears a “conversation” between the four strings, though there are also several moments in which he seems to be thinking of the quartet in orchestral terms. It’s a fine balancing act that he walked, and the Quartet No. 4 is clearly the finest of them, with only the slow second movement harking back to a more Romantic style.

The Vilnius Quartet plays well, with the bright timbres characteristic of Eastern European string players, and the sound quality is first-rate. This is, then, an interesting disc, recommended for a glimpse into the oeuvre of a little-known composer.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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