I found the superb sound as appealing as the performances, and the whole package receives my hearty recommendation.

I found the superb sound as appealing as the performances, and the whole package receives my hearty recommendation.

I found the superb sound as appealing as the performances, and the whole package receives my hearty recommendation.

The spine of the digipak holding this CD contains a rather intriguing designation—Vol. III—that doesn’t show up anywhere else in the packaging that I can see. Since I’m intrigued, you can guess that I missed Volumes I and II, if such exist. But I’m glad to catch up with the Engegård Quartet of Norway even if I’m late to the party. The program on offer here reflects the kind of programming you’d encounter in a live chamber music concert. The composers aren’t matched aesthetically, perhaps, but their inclusion sets up a very interesting inter-centuries dialogue and in the process creates an intellectually fulfilling listening experience.

All three compositions, in one way or another, represent the edge of an expanding compositional envelope. Of the three composers, Bartók is the bona fide avant-gardist, though in his superb Fifth String Quartet he seemed to be in the process of moderating his flintier modernist style of the 20s and 30s, turning toward the more accessible music of his last years, which included the Concerto for Orchestra and Third Piano Concerto. In the eventful Fifth Quartet of 1934, he’s still not there by a long shot, but there are inklings of a more listener-friendly Bartók, including the folk-inspired scherzo third movement, where eastern-European folk dance seems to achieve an jazzy inflection, and in the tightly-wound last movement, whose coda incorporates a funny little mock-Rococo minuet haunted by wince-inducing dissonances. But for the most part, this is classic Bartók, its folk influences incorporated seamlessly into a dissonant harmonic language propelled by wild syncopated rhythms and modernist gestures such as slithery glissandos and drumming spiccatos. Then there is perhaps the most characteristic movement of all, the Andante fourth, one of Bartók’s eloquent pieces of night music.

If Haydn’s Quartet Op. 77 No. 1 seems somewhat out of place in this company, I doubt that Beethoven would have thought so. The two Op. 77 Quartets, the last string quartets that Haydn completed, were commissioned by Prince Joseph Lobkowitz, who happened also to commission the first six quartets of Haydn’s one-time pupil, Ludwig van Beethoven. Haydn’s works appeared in 1799, while Beethoven was in the process of creating his Opus 18 (published in 1801). As with Haydn’s friend and colleague Mozart, the influence between Haydn and Beethoven undoubtedly went both ways. Beethoven’s Op. 1 Piano Trios of 1795 introduced the musical world to the scherzo as a replacement for the formerly de rigueur minuet. The fleet third movement of Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 1 is a minuet in name only; it’s really a scherzo in which the trio provides no respite at all, being as resolutely propulsive as the minuet proper. But the capper is Haydn’s last movement: the perpetuum mobile codetta—perhaps inspired by folk fiddling that Haydn would have heard out in the hinterlands of Austro-Hungary—sounds very much like the more Dionysian passages in Beethoven’s quartets. So here we have Haydn at his most forward-looking, thanks to his ever-restless musical spirit—and his acquaintanceship with his fractious former pupil.

With the inclusion of Duplex, the Engegård Quartet pays homage to a native son, Arne Nordheim (1931–2010), who introduced his conservative homeland to avant-garde trends from the Continent. Over the years Nordheim’s idiom ranged from the “free-tonality” of Bartók to the musique concrète that characterized avant-garde musical trends in the 60s and 70s. Nordheim even stayed extensively in Warsaw, imbibing the influences of Penderecki and Lutosławski and incorporating electronically produced musical sounds in his compositions from this period. Toward the end of the 80s, however, Nordheim turned back the clock stylistically: “The music from this period is characterized by a more vibrant and driven expression, with violent outbursts and physical gestures, in contrast to the dreamy sound world from the previous decade.” In other words, he revisited the “free-tonal” world of his earliest Bartók-inspired works.

Duplex, written in 1992, is in this vein, and while its three short movements are the work of an accomplished composer and are certainly worth hearing, there is a certain feeling of déjà-vu about the piece. It includes so many of the gestures of the earlier avant-garde— including spooky, near-Expressionist glissandos and tremolos—that it seems like a retrospective glance rather than a forward-looking one, especially in the company of the Bartók and Haydn works. Yet it’s good to hear from Norway’s most celebrated contemporary composer, especially in a performance that’s as alert and sympathetic as the Engegård Quartet’s.

Of course there’s lots of recorded competition in the Bartók and Haydn works, but that hardly matters given the nature of this program, which plays upon an uncanny synergy among the three composers. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, and that goes as well for 2L’s typically rich surround-sound recording. Set down in a Norwegian church, the recording imparts a slightly bigger-than-life sound to the quartet, plus a certain glamour to the string tone. If you prefer a drier acoustic, you may be somewhat put off, but I found the superb sound as appealing as the performances, and the whole package receives my hearty recommendation.

—Lee Passarella