Vadim Salmanov: String Quartet no. 1

performed by the Taneyev Quartet

(cover image by Frederic Koberl)

Vadim Nikolayevich Salmanov was born on November 4, 1912 in Saint Petersburg. His musical education began with piano lessons from his father, and was preparing to enter the Leningrad Conservatory when, surprisingly, he decided instead to study geology, and followed through. He actually did work as a geologist for five-ish years, until in 1935 he finally decided to enter the conservatory.

Upon graduation, he did work as a composer until the outbreak of World War II, when he enlisted in the Soviet Army. Afterward, much of his output focused on settings of poems, initially Soviet, but later including text by such figures as Pablo Neruda.

Salmanov’s English Wikipedia entry is quite brief, and the Russian one isn’t much longer, but at least tells us that he wrote four symphonies (as well as a “Children’s Symphony”), two violin concertos, a number of choral works, six string quartets, two violin sonatas, two trios, a piano quartet, cello sonata, among other pieces.

HIs first string quartet dates from 1945, making it, along with the aforementioned violin sonatas, some of his earliest music published. His next string quartet didn’t come until more than a decade later, in 1958.

The first quartet is in four movements, and is a relatively brief work lasting around 20 minutes:

  1. Grave
  2. Allegro molto
  3. Andante
  4. Allegro con fuoco

This work almost seems to be in two halves, the first half quite straightforward, a little simple, and the second far more adventurous.

The first and, rarely, shortest movement opens with a heady, intense gesture, a rippling wave of sound that seems to presage a much larger, more weighty work. In contrast to that, though, this shortest movement appears not even to have a second theme, or if it is indeed in some kind of very abbreviated sonata form, is so overshadowed by that initial gush that it’s just not that noticeable. This opening theme appears again about halfway through the movement, and seems a bit premature to be an exposition repeat, much less recapitulation. Regardless, this movement can subsist on the propulsion of that opening, and is tense and brooding.

The second movement scherzo is much more familiar in layout, folklike, effective but really without being inventive. It checks the boxes that a scherzo should, and gets full marks for being spirited. The trio here, or the material that’s not the scherzo, seems to fill the void left by the previous movement’s lack of development. It’s tumultuous and conflicting, and there’s a real sense of resolve to the reappearance of the scherzo, but this time it’s ornamented and elaborated, colored by dissonance and a mood we didn’t hear in the beginning.

And this is where things get interesting. The andante, longer than either of the previous movements, has the acrid sparseness of Webern. Its bareness is a stark contrast to the rich, pretty familiar Romantic vocabulary of the previous movements. Here, though, we have sul ponticello bowing, lots of pizzicato. Out of this suddenly avant-garde opening, though, is an arrestingly tender violin solo. This is magical, captivating, contrapuntal. There’s an enormous amount of space now in the quartet, as the viola picks up the somber serenade solo line. It all makes me wonder if the composer didn’t come back years later and rework this movement, because it is truly memorable, even as simple and brief as it is, and I don’t feel that can be said of the previous movements. It’s impassioned, and builds satisfyingly to a real climax, before closing, like the previous movements, quietly.

The finale is the longest of the four movements, at about six and a half minutes, and begins with lots of layers, pretty transparently, but seems to get a little beyond the composer’s control at times. There are near-comical glissandi that slice through certain passages, a splash of Prokofiev-esque humor, and glimpses of beauty, perhaps even some references to the opening movement. It’s overall just busy, but that’s not a criticism. There are some great moments here, but what stands out to me more than anything is the use of counterpoint throughout to generate, or at least sustain, a sort of thickness and complexity, even chaos, to this movement, rounding out a work that began pretty plainly, in my opinion, and ends with the slightest glimmer of light.

This work is a journey even if it’s only for reaching that touching, pensive third movement, and getting back out again, like finding your way through a forest that continues to darken until you come out the other side. The way in isn’t necessarily all that spectacular, but certainly not bad. It certainly makes me very interested to hear what he accomplished as a mature composer, with greater focus and maybe a bit more editing of ideas.

I suspect it will be a very long time before we get back around to seeing Salmanov’s name again, but it’s certainly one you may want to know if you have any interest in 20th century Russian music. Stay tuned for one more very familiar Russian name before we move on to something else, and thanks so much for reading.

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