Atterberg String Quartet no. 2 in B minor, op. 11

performed by the Stenhammar Quartet (no YouTube this time, but a review of the album is on MusicWeb, and it’s rather frank and more negative than I was inclined to be. Also, if you’re determined to listen to something today and don’t want to purchase this album after Barker’s negative review, scroll down for a YouTube video worth enjoying.)

So for this weekend’s installment of SQS, I must admit I tried to find something else. It’s not that this work isn’t any good. It’s great. But I’d made the comment earlier in some post that I’d try to feature other composers’ works for the String Quartet Series, since there are obviously plenty of composers who didn’t contribute symphonies to the collective output of Swedish music.

Also, thank goodness this series has zero intentions of addressing Swedish organ music or vocal works, because we’d be here forever.

There were a few hindrances to my finding someone else to feature in this spot in the series. For one, I have a thing with timelines. The fact that this piece is Atterberg’s op. 11 and this coming Monday’s work is his op. 6 bothers me enough, but it will have to do. (Monday’s Atterberg symphony will serve as the composer’s ‘first’ appearance on the blog. Deal with it.) I wanted something within a specific chronology. If I found it, or something near it, it was nearly impossible to find a recording, or even a score or any information about some of these works. I’d turned temporarily to few interesting violin sonatas or other works, but ultimately decided to stick with Atterberg for now. He’s one of the few (three?) composers for the month who’ll be getting a double feature, and those happen to be at the beginning, middle and end of the series, unless I decide to add one more.

Anyway, this is an example of how sparse information is even for someone as established and recorded as Atterberg (who, again, we shall discuss in greater detail on Monday). He wrote only three string quartets, and the second dates from 1918. Edition Silvertrust, an organization about which I know virtually nothing, has come through on a few rare works, like the Ölander sextet last weekend, and they have an informative article about the quartet at hand. Their introduction states:

Atterberg’s String Quartet No.2 in b minor dates from 1916 and was dedicated to “The Splinter”, a reference to those composers who had broken away from the Chamber Music Society of Stockholm and had tried unsuccessfully to start another rival association. The impetus for the work came when his friend and fellow composer Natanael Berg suggested that they each write a quartet of less than 16 minutes duration as an act of defiance toward the stogy Chamber Music Society.

It’s a tiny little quartet, I guess, only in three movements, but the Stenhammar Quartet’s interpretation still comes in at more than 18 minutes, not the 16 mentioned above. There’s something refreshing, too, about the impetus for the work. While the piece itself sounds plenty serious at times, it is on occasion nice to have something smaller-scale, compact, that’s able to express a solitary idea or palate of emotions in a more concise package, and who can’t get behind a little act of musical defiance?

I don’t think you need to read Silvertrust’s comments about the first movement to notice immediately the symphonic nature of the work. It sounds full-bodied in the way a quintet or sextet should. There’s the full range of voices and textures, with spare strings for pizzicato, quickly establishing an atmosphere. It seems at first strident, but there’s an almost-slithery but rich, more tender contrasting element. The writing feels perfectly suited to the quartet, natural and expressive yet limber. In most cases, we’d have to go back to Mozart for a six-minute sonata-form movement, but what we have here is concise, modern-sounding without being unromantic, but it also feels like there’s content enough here for a movement of triple this length. The two basic elements presented as the themes of the movement are full of texture and emotion and could really go somewhere, and perhaps the fact that they don’t is part of the defiance this piece represents. I don’t know.

The first movement ends with a quiet echo and a plucked string. The second movement begins with plucked strings and what sounds like the beginning of a melody from a Mahler adagio. But its own seeming lack of direction is interesting as well. It has its stops and starts, giving an almost uncertain but pained emotion, a very spacious, kind of lonely, empty atmosphere, a sort of thin lyricism, and the longest movement of the quartet. But Silvertrust mentions a ballerina as the composer’s inspiration, and I won’t say what I hear is tragic, but certainly far more melancholy than a ballerina, definitely in hues of navy and grey rather thank pinks and whites.

The final movement opens brazenly, and the “thrusting march and a wild dance” that Silvertrust mentions are certainly the crunchiest, liveliest elements of the work. It’s folksy, spirited, and a little bit shadowy, I’d say by far the most engaging thing in the quartet, a solid way to end the piece. While I said about the first movement that it seems like it has enough content to be thrice its length, I’d much more like to hear what would be done with the drama conjured up in the finale.

As an early work, I think it’s a great show of skill, to offer up with zero tricks, an unpretentious and straightforward work like this quartet. Not every work has to be important and self-aggrandizing, and this work is a quick little, maybe even impulsive, but still well-crafted work, that shows a youthful spontaneity, like the 20th century version of Mozart’s early quartets.

I’ll also say that in all the months of passive then far more dedicated listening and clicking and reading and writing, the above-linked Silvertrust article was the first time I’d come across the name of Natanael Berg. He didn’t write any string quartets, it seems (thankfully, or I’d feel obliged to abandon this article and include him here), but he gave the world six symphonies. His teacher at the Stockholm Conservatory, though, Johan Lindegren, wrote a string quintet in 1870 that very nearly made it onto the roster. If you’re interested, it’s here:

I hope to get around to writing about that one sometime soon, because quite enjoyed the few listens I gave it, but it lost to Ölander and Söderman (and not just because their names have umlauts). So there’s Atterberg, and more of him to come, but also N. Berg and Lindegren who deserve their mentions. Stay tuned for the actual Atterberg post on Monday. Adjö!

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