Rosenberg String Quartet no. 2, op. 21

performed by the Lysell String Quartet, available on Spotify

(cover image by Delyn Stirewalt)

And here we are with more of the Editor’s Choice series.

For a refresher, this series features 20th century composers who gave us a whole cycle of (at least four) string quartets and symphonies. You won’t see Shostakovich on here, though, nor Philip Glass, nor any of the other composers who are really mainstream. They’re all at various levels of familiarity; I won’t say they’re necessarily (very) obscure, at least for the listeners willing to do a little digging, but for some of them, Rosenberg included, it can be difficult to find recordings of some of his works.

This string quartet, for example, is issued in different releases, as part of individual albums or as an entire box set (with a blue cover), and this recording of this work by the Lysell quartet is to my knowledge the only one that’s ever been made. The release of the entire cycle is made of contributions from various performers, and I am not holding my breath to be getting another recording of these works released any time soon.

The second quartet came in 1924, four years after the first version of Rosenberg’s first, which he revised in 1923. I wonder if this revision had any bearing on his deciding to revisit the form. In any case, these first two quartets (and actually the third as well) were revised in 1955 (meaning that was the third version of the first quartet). I am assuming that in this recording, we have the revised version from 1955.

The work is in four movements, as follows, with a playing time of about 13 minutes:

  1. Andante molto ed espressivo
  2. Allegro assai
  3. Lento
  4. Moderato energico

The first movement, to my ear, quickly establishes two things. First, it’s unmistakably modern. It’s no Schoenberg, but really, we’re not too terribly far from that. Secondly, there is a pronounced sense of lyricism, softness to the writing, despite the harmonies that may seem rather acerbic at times. As we settle into the music, it radiates a warmth and feeling, orbiting pretty closely around that opening material, quite noticeable when the cello picks it up, but the first climax in this short movement is expertly approached.

There’s a bouncier second subject, and this short movement proceeds accordingly, recalling these two captivating themes, which are indeed expressive. You may not care for the aesthetic, but I feel that Rosenberg’s skill at handling the quartet is really superb. The first movement, just barely the longest of the work, ends quietly, leading to the second movement’s allegro.

It’s a chirpy, sort of fractured scherzo. Everyone falls into step after the first section though, and it feels like the pieces have come together. Listen for the ornate texture provided by the heavy use of trills at critical moments. It’s a unique movement, especially as we approach what must be the trio. The climax is sickly, unsettling, and the trio is softer if not still a little wounded-sounding. Only at the return of the scherzo does it seem like an actual melodic theme is finally formulated, and the movement ends abruptly with a unison pluck of strings.

The lento is the shortest movement of the work, at just under three minutes. The (first?) violin takes over with the melody as the remaining members of the quartet kind of sigh in the background. The violin is playing either sul ponticello or actually playing harmonics, giving a sort of sandy, or glassy, eery sound to the line, in the highest register sounding almost like a theremin. At the very closing bars of this movement, the otherwise static atmosphere is broken by the first phrase of what seems like should develop into a moving, melodic line, but no. We move to the tumultuous finale.

It sounds like a fugue. It erupts into activity, especially in contrast with the third movement, but isn’t a roiling wall of violence for its entire duration. The finale is just slightly shorter than the first movement, and while there are some quieter, or less pronounced, moments, the movement is perpetually in motion, and while it might not be a strict fugue, but there are certainly motifs or repeating elements that give this short movement quite a lot of weight. It’s rigorous, exciting, but manages not to devolve into what feels like a pedantic exercise. It’s a joy to listen to, and overall, this rich, expressive quartet is only 13-or-so minutes long.

In the end, I feel like this is an idiom that just isn’t that unfamiliar, even if the piece is exceptionally obscure. Do you hear Berg, maybe a bit of Bartók in here? I think you could say that. Very much worth a listen, in my opinion. I’m interested to know perhaps what changes were made, or how extensive they were, because this quartet strikes me as sounding quite mature, but that may just be the result of the revision in the ’50s.

In any case, we might get a bit more insight into his level of maturity in the ’20s, as later this week, we’ll be discussing his op. 22, which exactly followed this piece, so please stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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3 thoughts on “Rosenberg String Quartet no. 2, op. 21

  1. Your post send me rushing to Spotify not only for this quartet, but also an album featuring symphonies 3 and 6, which previously hadn’t made an impact on me. What a revelation – thank you! While one or two passages might remind one of such-and-such composer writing at around the same time, Rosenberg clearly has his own distinctive and genuinely exciting voice! Such a shame that he’s been (comparatively) overshadowed by his countryman and near-contemporary Pettersson (who really couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else…and with whom I’ve tried – I really have! – only to fall back, time and again, into agreement with Robert Layton that what his music chiefly conveys, despite its composer’s protestations to the contrary, is a frankly alienating degree of self-pity).

    By the way, did you ever get round to looking into Rosenberg’s American near-namesake, Rochberg?

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