Krzysztof Meyer’s String Quartets

MEYER: String Quartets Nos. 1-4 / Wieniawski String Qrt / Naxos 8.573165

MEYER: String Quartets Nos. 5, 6 & 8 / Wieniawski String Qrt / Naxos 8.570776

8.573001 bk Meyer ï 3_EU_8.573001 bk Meyer ï 3_EU

MEYER: String Quartets Nos. 7, 10 & 13 / Wieniawski String Qrt / Naxos 8.573001


MEYER: String Quartets Nos. 9, 11 & 12 / Wieniawski String Qrt / Naxos 8.572656

These recordings were all issued in the early-to-mid 2010s, when I was writing reviews for a noted classical music magazine, but of course I was never invited to review any of them because I was the one they constantly stuck with the piano music of Chopin and Liszt because, after all, that’s what Ladies Like Best. As a result, came to hate both composers. Overexposure will do that to you.

As for Meyer’s quartets, they are as strange, original and fascinating as most of his other music. Even the very first one, written in 1963 when he was only 20 years old,  already has his stamp on it, the same as his mature music from 20 or 40 years later. Atonality, microtonal passages, edgy string tremolos and always that undercurrent of lyricism, mark this music. Over the decades, I’ve come to the realization that those major composer who wrote string quartets often put their finest and most intimate musical ideas in them, whether they wrote only a few like Schubert and Brahms or a great many like Haydn, Beethoven and Shostakovich. After all, using only four “voices,” particularly in the format created in the 18th century where they are voiced like a “little orchestra” yet have far greater clarity and, with that, immediacy of expression, leads the listener into mental and emotional crevices that their rich, larger-formed music does not always do. In Meyer’s case, this is also partially true. He does, at least, bring us a little deeper into his creative mind because the format is much more intimate, but since he often pares down his orchestral works to chamber-sized dimensions, the creative gap isn’t as evident as it is in the case of the other composers I cited above.

Meyer does indeed think of his quartets as “little orchestras,” but since his orchestral works (as mentioned above) do not always include a great many tuttis, the same is true here. Although his personal writing style is different, there is a surprising similarity in working methods to other avant-garde composers like Harry Partch, although Partch was frequently more whimsical and even a bit more outré in expression. The first string quartet also includes a surprisingly large number of moments in which the quartet plays microtonally (i.e., sliding in pitch up and down the strings), and this, too reminds one of Partch as well as of Carillo.

I’ve not yet seen, in print or online, an interview with Meyer, but I would love to pick his brain and discover how he comes up with his motifs and themes and then how it is that he parses them, fragments them, takes them apart and puts them together again in a single movement or an entire composition. There is, however, a good clue to this methods in a quote from him in the liner notes for the first four quartets:

Applying various techniques is for me only a means to composition, and it is by no means an exaggeration … to say that I enter some regions of my inner soundscape using any technical means available [bold print mine] and that I will still arrive at a result that I had aimed at from the start, regardless of the means applied.

As for his affinity for this form, he picked this up as a young boy thanks to the fact that he came from a wealthy family geared to high culture:

When I was a little boy, I had a chance to listen to chamber music concerts that were regularly organized at my home. Probably these first impressions fundamentally shaped my interests and principles … My musical homeland is the chamber music of the Viennese Classic, ex tended by the most splendid of twentieth-century musical worlds –Bartók’s.

In any event, he is clearly so far above the average run of composers nowadays that he might as well be in a universe all by himself, the way Igor Stravinsky was for most of his life. This is not, however, to say that Meyer—like Stravinsky—doesn’t occasionally have weaknesses. In Stravinsky’s case, it was sometimes a matter of trying to be too “cute” in the way he put things together (such as in Pulcinella, La Baiser de la Fée and The Rake’s Progress, although I love the latter). In Meyer’s case, it is sometimes (but happily, not often) a matter of his being too abstract in the way he puts his pieces together…his Fifth Symphony is a good example of what I mean. Yes, he is a musical genius; I don’t question that for a second after hearing his music; but even so, I, as a listener, reserve the right to accept or reject the results of his genius as I hear them.

Being written so close together (1963, 1969, 1971 & 1974), these first four quartets naturally share a great many stylistic and structural similarities. Although the music of No. 2 is clearly different from that of No. 1, and the same with Nos. 3 & 4, the lay listener can very easily hear, for instance, the one-movement Quartet No. 2 almost as an extra movement of Quartet No. 1 etc. In these early years, I think, Meyer had not quite yet developed his other compositional “voices,” thus the similarities are stronger than the differences. But isn’t that true of all composers? After all, the six quartets that make up Beethoven’s Op. 18 all tend to sound of a piece, too. And yes, there are clearly moments in Nos. 2-4, such as the loud, fast passage in No. 2 where the quartet suddenly rise up (unusually for Meyer) en masse to play a loud, fast, emotional passage that almost sounds like a bitonal hoedown, where he does indeed give us something different, not heard in the others.

And of course, the impact that any music, but particularly music of this complexity, makes on you is due in large part to the performers’ approach to it. Thankfully, the Wieniawski String Quartet, consisting of two somewhat older (viola & cello) and two somewhat younger (the violinists) members, seems pretty locked into this music and dedicated to presenting it in its best light. Need I say that, considering the ultra-Romantic composer they are named after, I an very proud of them for this? We clearly need many more modern-day classical performers whose repertoire is at least half modern music, and by modern music I mean anything written since 1960, not before it!

Meyer’s sense of drama was already honed to a fine point by the time of the third quartet (1971); note, for instance, the superb manner in which he builds tension using nothing more than a repeated sequence of string tremolos (at different volume levels) in the last movement of this piece. And the fourth quartet is an entirely different kind of piece, much more fragmented in its use of notes, more atmospheric and less structured. It reminds me of the kind of music that Leif Segerstam was writing at about this same time, but in a sense I think that Meyer’s early music was an influence on Segerstam rather than the other way around.

The problem with this group of CDs as a “set,” even though I realize that each disc was issued separately, is one in common with dozens of such collections of composer’s quartets, sonatas or symphonies, a lack of chronology—in this case, after the sixth quartet, a disc which, you can tell by its catalog number, was actually released first. I really do wonder at the intelligence of those in charge who decide such things, as most of the time these works fit quite easily in chronological order on sequential CDs. In this case they don’t, though—CD 3, containing quartets Nos. 8-10, would have to run over 87 minutes, so in this case I forgive them. Still, you really should listen to the complete set in sequence, as it shows you how Meyer continued to develop and expand his style to incorporate other “voices,” and no leap forward is quite as dramatic as that from the fourth to the fifth quartet.

Here, in 1977, we are in the midst of Meyer’s fully mature style, manipulating the thematic material in such a way that it morphs and grows, each succeeding section feeding off the one previously, creating, in the end, a unified whole. The pace of the fifth quartet also slows down considerably as you progress through the movements. By contrast, the opening movement of the Quartet No. 6 uses a great deal of syncopation, almost but not quite in a jazz-like manner, which the Wieniawski players capture to perfection. In the second movement of this quartet (“Prestissimo”). Meyer sets up fast violin passages that almost simulate a hoedown; the figures they play almost suggest little animals scurrying around in the dark. Yet, in the slow third movement, he reverts to long-held notes with several pauses thrown in to interrupt the flow of the music, once again suggesting a mood rather than a taut structure…and yet, later on in this music, there is more scurrying of a slightly different kind, along with bent notes. Curiouser and curiouser! There is also some very strong syncopation in the second movement (“Furioso”) of the Quartet No. 8.

Despite what he claims is his natural affinity for quartet writing, Meyer has often taken his sweet old time producing several of his later works in this genre. After the flurry of the first four quartets, written within a decade, the others followed in irregular spurts: No. 5 in 1977, No. 6 in 1981 and No. 7 in 1985. The latter reflects his later style, which uses more lyrical (albeit bitonal) melodic lines which in turn leads to a greater unity of the material at hand. This work is indeed very close to Bartók, even though Meyer moves further out of the tonal center in his most complex and dramatic passages. Writing in longer lines, for him, also means writing in a slightly more conventional rhythm, which again makes the music just that more accessible to the average listener. Thus it makes some sense (though not a lot) that Naxos chose to release Vol. 2 (Quartets Nos. 5, 6 & 8) first with Quartets Nos. 9, 11 & 12 second, this one (Nos. 7, 10 & 13) third and the more abstract first four quartets last. Heaven forbid that you should shock listeners into listening to music that doesn’t follow established patterns!

The Tenth Quartet also has strong echoes of Bartók, or even a bit of Shostakovich, but here Meyer is freer with his manipulation of both themes and rhythm in the development sections. At times in the first movement, for instance, quirky little motifs bounce around from instrument to instrument, creating a “sort of” hocket effect but not quite. The “Allegro assai” portion of this quartet becomes quite complex indeed, pushing the players to the limits of their abilities to interact with rapid figures which sometimes are at odds with one another rhythmically. By this time (1994), too, Meyer’s music began to take on the atmospheric quality—quite different from his earlier “atonal ambient” style—that would mark much of his later output. The 13th and (so far) last quartet (I can’t believe that Meyer doesn’t have a 14th quartet up his sleeve, yet to be produced) is the most involved and complex structure of the entire series, very much like some of Beethoven’s last three quartets—and not really all that far removed from Beethoven in its harmonic daring, though of course Ludwig was close to 100 years ahead of his time in that respect. Also like one of Beethoven’s late quartets, Meyer here created a world within a world where every note and gesture combines together to create a unified microcosm of sound and emotion. This is truly a masterpiece that you need to hear and not just read about; the music is so compact that even trying to describe one portion of it as it flies by your ears can’t possibly do justice to the whole movement in which that moment occurs.

The “last” CD, however, backs up a bit, starting with the Ninth Quartet from 1990, a work that looks back a bit to Meyer’s style of 1963-72 as well as incorporating a few (but very few) ideas from Benjamin Britten, particularly the open fifths. But it’s really all his style despite the use of a few ideas from Britten—note the high, whistling violin figures in the vigorous and somewhat ominous-sounding first movement. It is in the second movement that we hear Meyer’s later, more lyrical style coming to the fore, with the viola and one violin playing the melancholy theme in the opening measures. The third movement is nearly all pizzicato figures, some of which run over each other. The 11th Quartet, dating from 2001, seems to combine both of Meyer’s basic styles, the knotty and the lyrical, in a well-crafted series of theme expositions and developments. This is especially evident in the slow section, which passes for a second movement, where Meyer introduces cute little pauses in the music to interrupt its flow when you least expect him to.

The last quartet in the series as presented here is the 12th from 2005, surprisingly (for Meyer) a nine-movement work lasting nearly 40 minutes. Here, as in the 13th Quartet, he creates a work which again bears some resemblance to Beethoven’s late quartets in both mood and structure, i.e. the juxtaposition of contrasting moods, going (for instance) from the pensive first movement to an almost violent second. I won’t spoil the surprises in the rest of the quartet for you, but remember what I said: it’s very much modeled on late Beethoven.

Krzysztof Meyer is clearly one of the greatest of living composers, a man who knows how to construct music that is modern harmonically and rhythmically yet which, more often than not, also touches the heart. It’s a shame that his scores are not nearly as well known as they should be. Hopefully these reviews I’ve written will open the door for you to explore his wide and varied output.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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