Lex van Delden: Complete String Quartets

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Lex van Delden
String Quartet No.1, Op.43
String Quartet No.2, Op.86
String Quartet No.3, Op.106 (Willink Tetraptych)
Musica di Catasto: Intrada e Passacaglia, Op.108

Utrecht String Quartet [Eeva Koskinen & Katherine Routley (violins), Ásdis Valdimarsdóttir (viola) & Sebastian Koloski (cello)] with Quirijn van Regteren Altena (double bass)

Recorded 25-28 April 2006 in Doopsgezinde Kerk, Haarlem

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: March 2007
Duration: 67 minutes

It really is extraordinary how little we know of Dutch music in the UK. Though we are familiar with the work of leading performers such Bernard Haitink, Elly Ameling, Ton Koopman and Reinbert de Leeuw, Dutch composers, apart from Louis Andriessen, have made much less impact.

So here’s a welcome opportunity to start redressing the balance. Lex van Delden (1919-1988) was born and died in Amsterdam. Self-taught, his output includes symphonies, concertos (including, I see from the work-list in Grove, one for Hammond organ and orchestra), choral and chamber works, and he received a number of important commissions.

Lex van Delden’s three numbered string quartets are presented here in reverse chronological order, followed by the later Musica di Catasto: Intrada e Passacaglia, a quintet with double bass. So the first work on the disc is Quartet No.3 from 1979. The title indicates its point of departure: four paintings by Carel Willink (also a native of Amsterdam), as specified by the art collector and amateur violinist F. Fopma, who commissioned it. These are reproduced in full colour at the centre of the booklet.

The compact opening movement combines lyrical grace with a rhythmic urgency that comes to the fore in the second. The third and longest movement, prompted by a portrait of Mrs Fopma, is marked by more of the warm lyricism suggested in the opening movement. The finale begins vigorously but ends suspended on a disconcertingly open-ended note.

Quartet No.2, from 1965, is in three movements, a transcription of van Delden’s Symphony No.8 for string orchestra. The first is framed by a ‘Preludio’ and a ‘Postludio’ that allude to the dotted rhythms of the baroque French overture. The short central scherzo is followed by an expansive finale that begins slowly and expressively, before moving into an Allegro that maintains its forward impulse impressively up to its rather enigmatically declamatory ending.

The four-movement First Quartet of 1954 opens in a good-humoured contrapuntal vein but in the end turns out to be the darkest of the three quartets. This is largely due to the brooding, rhapsodic second movement, which casts a shadow over the rest of the work. The finale, in particular, for all its outward energy, has a tenuous, fragile core.

Musica di Catasto, the most recent work on the disc (1981), was commissioned the mark the 150th anniversary of land registry in the Netherlands. Land registry, according to the helpful booklet notes by the composer’s son, Lex (Jr.), was first conceived in France in 1812, and van Delden peppers his score with references to Tchaikovsky’s overture. It opens in a relaxed, easy-going frame of mind, but tensions soon come to the surface. The Passacaglia veers between restlessness, wry humour, and a kind of dark serenity.

Van Delden’s chromatic but basically tonal language often involves close thematic working, with tight, compact motivic cells contrasting with broad singing lines. It’s possible to hear echoes of Bartók and Shostakovich, occasionally Britten in Quartet No.2 and, in the second movement of No.1, a nod or two in the direction of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, but these appear to be expressive affinities rather than direct influences. Lex van Delden has a sure feel for quartet textures and sonorities, and though he rarely asks for unusual effects, he keeps the sonorities nicely varied.

The performances by the Utrecht String Quartet have an energy and conviction that eloquently communicate the musicians’ commitment to the music. Their playing has great tonal variety and a sure feel for van Delden’s often sprung rhythms, and is captured in vivid sound.

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