Papandopulo: Complete String Quartets; Chamber Music

Sebastian String Quartet, Davorin Brozić (clarinet) and Krešimir Bedek (guitar)

CPO 555 469-2 [3 CDs]

The more I’ve encountered of the music of Boris Papandopoulo (a Croatian composer with a decidedly Greek name, thanks to his father’s side of the family), the more I realise the wealth of riches to be found here. An extraordinarily prolific composer, with three operas, four ballets, ten concertos, a handful of orchestral works and masses of chamber, choral and solo works, this collection brings together five of his six string quartets (the fourth appears to have been lost), a quartet for guitar violin, viola and cello and a quintet for clarinet and string quartet.

The cycle of string quartets showcases the development of the composer’s interests, from the early three heavily influenced by Croatian folk music to the later three that also incorporate jazz influences and dodecaphonic techniques, though he never fully relinquishes tonality all six burst with energy, though all also boast slow movements that have the ability to really tug at the heartstrings. The first quartet is one of two quartets that lean particularly heavily on Croatian folk idioms: the outer movements could call to mind a traditional Kolo “round dance” with palindromic musical structures. A more meditative middle movement introduces some rather more dissonant music, but never particularly harshly and they always resolve in satisfying, often very beautiful fashion, while the final movement is the most similar to the traditional Kolo and marches triumphantly toward a surprisingly subdued conclusion. The second string quartet maintains a certain element of the folk influence, while introducing some striking dissonance along the way. This quartet seems barely to have escaped the same fate as the 4th, but was reconstructed by Felix Spiller. It reveals perhaps a clearer influence of Bartók than its predecessor, a trait it actually shares with the 6th, which is perhaps the fullest combination of folk idioms with astringent harmony. The fifth quartet is probably the toughest of the bunch: a hair-raisingly dissonant work, tilting further toward atonality than any of the other works in the collection. It is, I think, a very fine work, even if this new harmonic language might come as a shock to listeners (as it did to me) at first. Through the harshness of the harmonic language still shines Papandopoulo’s rhythmic zest that characterises so many of his works that I have heard, resulting in Stravinskian rhythmic isolations that are full of life, however great a departure from conventional tonality we experience. There are, however, some perhaps tongue-in-cheek tonal cadences at key moments as if cocking a snook at the prevailing fashion for unresolved harmonies at the time. The third quartet is a gem! Subtitled the “Folk” quartet, this has much in common with the first quartet, but distilled into a beautifully engaging work, featuring an engaging Folk Idyll opening movement, followed by an exuberant Kolo, before a heart-wrenching moderato Fiddler’s Song. Replete with weeping falling phrases, the mood is actually relatively bleak, but it briefly resolves into a major key in the middle of the movement, as if the sun has suddenly come out, allowing the players to allow the shortest of glowing warm harmonic writing before the ‘tears’ return. It is rounded off by a more urgent final Allegro Vivace, which provides a rousing finale to a truly fantastic quartet. The music on the whole is is homophonic, though there are brief polyphonic passages. The key character is one of rhythmically propulsive music, amply served by the playing of the Sebastian Quartet’s crisp playing that achieves warmth without ever being over-sentimental.

The Guitar Quartet shares some of the characteristics of the second string quartet, apparently influenced by Bosnian folklore. The guitar is sometimes almost percussive in the vehemently rhythmic string writing, but soulful nevertheless in the central slow movement. The Clarinet Quintet is a gigantic chamber work at nearly 40 minutes, opening with a mournful melody carried by one of the violins, later complimented by viola and cello. The clarinet mirrors the mournful melody upon its entry, but it isn’t long before this gives way to a prestissimo second half of the movement, requiring considerable stamina of all players. The slow movement may call to mind the counterpart movement in the third string quartet, while the following Allegro con brio is a playful scherzo compared to a more unsettled finale. The filler on the set is the single movement A Song of Peace and Freedom Sounded Out, which leans heavily on The Internationale as the basis for a set of variations.

The recording seemingly took five years to make and one must admire the dedication of all of the musicians as well as the CPO recording team in providing such a valuable addition to the recognition of a composer who, with a few adventurous programmers’ help could well come to be considered rather major in the not-too-distant future. The Sebastian String Quartet play with magnificent energy and commitment and soloists Davorin Brozić (clarinet) and Krešimir Bedek (guitar) are excellent in their respective roles. Light Music fans will be well served with memorable tunes and this collection should be considered a must-have for chamber music enthusiasts.

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