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FARTEIN VALEN: String Quartets, No. 1, Op. 10; No. 2; Three Poems by Goethe – Hilde Haraldsen Sveen, sop./ Hansakvartetten – 2L Pure Audio Blu-ray + SACD

FARTEIN VALEN: String Quartets, No. 1, Op. 10; No. 2, Op. 13; Op. 0; Three Poems by Goethe, Op. 6 – Hilde Haraldsen Sveen, sop./ Hansakvartetten – 2L Pure Audio Blu-ray DTS HD MA (192/24) 5.1 + multichannel SACD MCH 5.1 DSD 2L-102 (2 discs), 55:35 ea. [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Fartein Valen (1881-1952) was Norway’s leading modern composer, and though a phenomenal talent, his path to fame took him along the paths trod by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern—and we all known how popular they were at the time. He started piano lessons very early, and when his missionary father moved the family back to Norway he began composing and becoming a top-notch pianist. He took a degree in organ playing, and then sought out Max Bruch in Berlin to try and study composition. Bruch was agreeable, and felt the young man had talent but needed lots of development. Two of the movements of the String Quartet that he had completed when petitioning Bruch are included here, and they are a fine example of the type of stretched romanticism of the time.

One can hear the progression from that 1909 piece to his Three Poems by Goethe. His style of “dissonant polyphony”, using a free atonality, is the dominant scaffolding in this curiously beautiful mini-cycle, and was rewritten from piano accompaniment only to string quartet, sharing its premiere with his Op. 10 Quartet in 1932. With these pieces we enter into the Schoenbergian world proper, and there was to be no turning back.

His second quartet, written two years after the first, did not receive its first performance until 1946, and even then the critical consensus was not a positive one, and never really has been towards this style in general no matter who writes the music. But by this point some critics were beginning to soften a bit, catching up perhaps with audiences who had already shown an appreciation of the pieces years earlier.

Like I say, this won’t be for everyone as not all accept the premises of the Second Viennese School. But for those who do, the music can be quite rewarding and well worth the time, especially when played as well as Hansakvartetten does here, with typically excellent 2L surround sound given on two outstanding hi-res surround formats.

—Steven Ritter

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