PELLE GUDMUNDSEN-HOLMGREEN (1932-2016): Complete String Quartets, Vol. 1 - No. 1, No. 2 “Quartetto Facile”, No. 3 “Five Small Studies”, No. 4, No. 5 “Step by Step” and No. 6 “Parting”.
Catalogue Number: 03U056
Description: Characteristically unpredictable, inventive and provocative, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's quartets thus far (this is less than half of them) chart some elements of his compositional evolution, though such is his propensity for never repeating himself that it is hard to detect any linear progression. The notes tell us that "The three early string quartets [all written in 1959] show in their separate ways Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s artistic point of departure." Well, points of departure maybe, but also glimpses of distant points of arrival. Before embracing his version of 'new simplicity', Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was comfortable with dodecaphony and even strict serialism; these three pieces slightly precede that. The first is based on a 12-note row, the harmonic implications of which are explored in counterpoint that results in lush, decadent late-Romantic harmonies and textures; the row is omnipresent, like a ground. The second is in four movements, conventionally structured; the work is very tonal and sounds like a rather impressive entry in the canon of mid-20th century quartet writing, owing something to Shostakovich and Bartók; it is only the subtitle that points to some rather obvious cadences and conventional gestures as having some satirical intent. The Studies, each exploring a different idea, are of Webernian brevity, ambiguous and dramatic little character pieces. Eight years later, the six-minute, single-span 4th takes us into the uniquely off-kilter world of the composer's maturity. The work consists entirely of insectoid drones and buzzing; a perfect musical interpretation of what one might hear if a microphone were embedded in a beehive. The insects are apparently oblivious to our presence, but the piece is unnerving because it seems all too possible that they might become aware of us at any moment. With the Fifth Quartet, which occupied the composer on and off from the early 1980s until 2003, we encounter a major, mature work. Beginning with rude energy in extrovert, belligerently optimistic gestures, the work sounds like a hectoring piece of minimalism, of sorts, to start with. Dense polyphonic textures and irregular rhythmic changes result from the overlapping of these abrasive fragments. Suddenly, though, with the intrusion of some unstable pitches and sparer textures, the music starts to sound less sure of itself. Gradually a sense of despair overtakes the piece, and its second half wanders aimlessly in denser and denser shadows, its actions meaningless and pointless, the epitome of the bleak minimalism of Samuel Beckett, with whom the composer had no problem being compared. In the Sixth, the Beckett parallel goes even further, the work consisting of a series of short gestures in a texture of the utmost austerity, with episodes of futile, repetitive activity that go nowhere, and a kind of slightly irritating refrain first heard at the very beginning. Eventually the piece works itself up into a brief motoric frenzy and spends its final few minutes petulantly complaining, with the kind of pitch black humor common to Gudmundsen-Holmgreen and Beckett. Nordic String Quartet.