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String Quartets

Artist: Manfred Trojahn
String Quartetes - Manfred Trojahn CD
Label: Neos
Regular Price: $18.95
On Sale For: $9.48 
Year: 2011
Format: CD


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To date Manfred Trojahn’s list of works contains four string quartets dating from 1976, 1979/80, 1983 and 2009. Yet he has also written other pieces for this same formation. Some of them make use of additional instruments, as in the Second String Quartet, three of whose movements add a mezzo-soprano and a clarinet to the string ensemble. A flute is added in Sonata IV “Printemps” (1995), and a soprano in the Schubert tribute Palinsesto (1996).

The seven-movement Lettera amorosa (2007) combines a string quartet, two more violins and two sopranos in different ways from movement to movement. All in all, the same paradigm applies to Trojahn’s music for string quartet as to the entire genre ever since Beethoven’s late quartets: each work is unique and individual in tone and conception.

Each also partakes of the lofty demands that Beethoven placed on his own music, testifying to the composer’s ambitions. And like the internalised expressive impulse of Beethoven’s quartets, they also offer listeners what might be called a private audience for the composer’s personal message.

Fragmente für Antigone (Fragments for Antigone, 1988) consists of six aphoristic pieces originally conceived as incidental music for a staging of Friedrich Hölderlin’s translation of Antigone in Bochum. In the event the music was left unused because, to quote the composer, “its radical bleakness mitigated against its inclusion in the play”. The music, with fragmentary movement headings excerpted from Hölderlin’s text, projects what might be termed the final destinations of Antigone’s life.

Loose-limbed pieces made up of two or three motivic gestures alternate with others constructed from a single motif. In particular, owing to the block-like handling of the instruments, Trojahn dispenses with the flexible role assignments of traditional quartet writing. The final piece presents nothing but the pitch c in a regular rhythm on the cello with pizzi-cato interpolations from the other strings, thereby turning monotony (in the original sense of the term) into a fatalistic expressive gesture for the eponymous protagonist as she is driven from life one step at a time.

A completely different texture prevails in Chant d’insommnie III, the sixth movement of Lettera amorosa, which was premiered in 2007 for the reopening of the Anna-Amalia Library in Weimar. Once the quartet has presented itself in the molto adagio introduction as an expressive ensemble acting with one mind, the compositional fabric takes up the gauntlet of tradition by assigning roles between accompaniment patterns and melodic lines, giving rise to post-romantic hues.

This “song to insomnia” may perhaps project the poetic image of a lover tossing and turning between alertness, semi-consciousness and rude awakenings. Finally, in the weightlessly fluttering euphonies of the ending, he seems to be spirited away entirely into the realm of dreams.

The gentle melodies of this nocturne stand in sharp contrast with Trojahn’s tight-knit and concise Third String Quartet of 1983. Here the parts, laid out in a flexible manner inspired by Beethoven’s quartet writing, react to each other with utmost tension, requiring only a small set of sharply etched, terse and vivid gestures in order to communicate. The traditional movement types can at best be divined in the disparate motivic writing of the first movement; the tranquil tempo of the second (leading to a gentle siciliano motion) and the fractures, rhythmic contrasts and upsurges of the third.

The final movement, with its short scherzando episode, is governed in turn by the principle of concatenation, with the motivic building blocks suggesting a rondo with their multiple recurrences. The conciseness of the musical events may owe something to a study of the music of the Viennese School, while the advanced harmonies, interspersed at most with fugitive suggestions of tonality, betray the style of the late 20th century.

To be sure, avant-gardism is not an end in itself in Trojahn’s music. All the more important, then, is his artistic proclamation of an historically minded individualism. Accordingly, the Fourth String Quartet offers nothing less than a modern-day prolongation of musical romanticism. The very opening movement, with its Tristan-esque chromaticism, already presupposes a fixed tonality. Sweeping melodic lines and passages of duet evoke the image of an elegiac scene. The second movement, a brilliant scherzo abounding in thematic twists and virtuosic joie de vivre, is subtitled “First strange scene”, leaving it to the listener to discover what the strangeness consists in.

Given the year of its premiere (2009, the Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy bicentennial), it is perhaps conceived as a turbulent Mendelssohniade. The third movement returns to the mood of the first. Tunefulness and the use of accompaniment parts to tinge the main melodic lines suggest a proximity to Schubert or Dvořák. In particular the concluding section calls for distorted performance techniques to convey that fragile, hovering sound typical of Trojahn’s quartet writing as a whole. A “Second strange scene” appears at the end of the piece, where Trojahn seems to ironically invoke the tradition of the final galop. Tarantella rhythms compete with and disrupt sumptuous folk-like parallel sixths.

With a musical wink of the eye, Trojahn thus creates that communicative understanding between composer and listener that presupposes active listening on the part of the audience while demanding, from his own music, the inclusion of obsolete inflections and idioms. In this way, as Trojahn put it in 1989, “the conclusion can be drawn that the listener and composer are bonded by similar knowledge and experience”.

Robert Maschka
Translation from the German: J. Bradford Robinson
Christoph Henschel (violin); Markus Henschek (violin); Monika Henschel (viola); Mathias Beyer-Karlshoh (violoncello)
Third String Quartet (1983) 12:39
[01] I. Molto Adagio 04:13
[02] II. sehr zart, äußerst langsam 03:46
[03] III. Agitato 01:27
[04] IV. sehr langsam, mit äußerster Ruhe 03:16

Fragmente für Antigone 21:46
Six pieces for string quartet (1988)
[05] I. …wenn uns nicht im Finstern hält die Zeit (Hölderlin) 03:31
[06] II. nicht kam ein Wort zu mir… (Hölderlin) 02:37
[07] III. …marmornen Glanz… (Hölderlin) 03:17
[08] IV. …dieselben Stöße der Seele (Hölderlin) 05:21
[09] V. O mir, grad vor dem Tode ist dies das Wort. (Hölderlin) 02:17
[10] VI. …und nicht wohin ich gehe. (Hölderlin) 04:40

[11] Chant d’insomnie III 10:16
No. 6 from Lettera amorosa (2007)

Fourth String Quartet (2009) 20:43
Dedicated in friendship to the Henschel Quartett
This composition was commissioned and supported by Kunststiftung NRW
[12] I. molto moderato 05:15
[13] II. moltissimo vivace (Erste fremde Szene) 03:29
[14] III. lento, rubato 06:14
[15] IV. andante, leggiero, sempre un poco staccato (Zweite fremde Szene) 05:44
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