KVANDAL: Fugue for String Quartet. String Quartets Nos. 1-3. 2 Norwegian Dances / Engegård Quartet / Lawo LWC1253
This is exactly the kind of CD I most enjoy reviewing, interesting works I’ve never heard before by a composer I didn’t even know existed. David Johan Kvandal was born in Kristiana on September 8, 1919, studied conducting and organ at the Oslo Conservatory, then composition with Joseph Marx and Nadia Boulanger. He worked as a music critic for two Norwegian newspapers as well as an organist at the Välenengen Church in Oslo. Wikipedia (my principal source for this info) tells us that many of his works “utilize folk elements,” but other sides point out the strong influences of Bartók and Stravinsky on his music. Near the end of his life, he apparently write a major opera based on a surrealist novel, Mysterier, but like so many quality operas by modern composers, there is no recording of it. Kvandal died in 1999.
This wonderful CD presents his complete string quartets, three full ones plus a fugue for that combination which he wrote in 1946, when he was 27 years old, and two Norwegian dances. My initial impression of this fugue was that it seemed to combine a melody that could have been drawn from Norwegian folk music with the principles of Bartók. I say “could have been” for thre reasons: 1) I was not provided a booklet with this download, 2) I’m clearly not Norwegian and thus unfamiliar with most folk music of that country, and 3) the harmonies are rather unusual, and my limited experience tells me that Norwegian folk music, mostly that which I know through the music of Edvard Grieg, does not use this kind of harmony. But the “Allegro” first movement of the first string quartet does sound like something that came out of Grieg, thus possibly from his native folk music. It is a jaunty tune that he treats with equally jaunty countermelodies from the other three instruments as the first violin concentrates on his folk-like tune. The music is cleverly developed as well. Indeed, resolutely tonal folk-like melodies dominate this first quartet although there are some unusual falling chromatics in the second movement. Like many slow movements in symphonies and string quartets, there is a faster section in the midst of this slow movement, but this one is unusual in that it is very fast, even faster that the first movement, and quite complex in its construction. When Kvandal returns to a slow pace, the music seems quite different: even slower, much quieter and almost dirge-like in feeling. This gives the quartet a certain feeling of gravitas which, up to that point, it had lacked, and from this point on the movement is not only much deeper but more interesting. Alas, the final two movements are rather shallow music.
Yet this quartet does not prepare you for the much deeper, more serious and more complex second quartet, which is truly a masterpiece. Kvandal obviously evolved quite a bit between his Opp. 27 (the first quartet) and 44 (his second), for this is extremely high-quality music that is deep but not harmonically so forbidding that it would turn off the average listener (though it may challenge him or her). The movements are also linked in such a way that they present not so much a continuity of musical thought as an evolution of it, the music being tied together by mutual keys and, despite the differences in tempo and themes, a general feeling. Note, for instance, how the slow sections of the second movement tie into the slow music of the first, then also how Kvandal moves both his musical pieces and emotional feelings around like chessmen on a board. This is truly excellent music.
With the 2 Norwegian Dances we are back in Happy Land, tuneful and meant to appeal to the masses, but this time with some interesting chord positions that remove the root note and thus make the harmony sound in flux rather than settled.
The third quartet, Op. 60, is another serious work that lies harmonically somewhere between the first and second quartets—not as resolutely tonal as the first but not quite as adventurous as the second—yet it, too, is extremely well thought out and knitted together in its own way. I would also characterize this one as a masterwork simply because of the brilliant way that Kvandal handles his musical materials. He clearly knew what he was doing as a composer, and if he occasionally played to the gallery he at least did so with a certain amount of dignity, as did Nikos Skalkottas.
My impression of Kvandal, based on this small sample size, is of a good composer who occasionally touched greatness. Without much further evidence, I will have to leave it there, but at least these quartets give one a good impression of what he was capable of. Not quite as good as Bartók, but clearly not a Korngold.
—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley
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