Leopold van der Pals (1884-1966)
String Quartets Volume 1
String Quartet No. 1, Op.33 (1916-17)
String Quartet No.2, Op.66 (1925)
String Quartet No.3, Op.79 ‘Metamorphosen’ (1929)
In Memoriam Marie Steiner, Op.176 (1948)
Van Der Pals Quartet
rec. 2019, Konserthuset, Helsingborg, Sweden
cpo 555 282-2 [65]

My previous encounter with the music of Leopold van der Pals was with his concertino works, largely from the 1930s, where he prizes elegance over passionate rhetoric. You’ll also find a link to Rob Barnett’s review of the First Symphony in that review, which contains valuable biographical material about van der Pals.

At the time of the revolution in Russia, where he had family, which coincided with his wife’s illness, van der Pals embarked on his first string quartet. It’s hard not to relate these external factors to the agitated chromaticism of the writing and the staunch March theme that gradually falters and dissolves into a state of sublimated unease. Hard, too, not to read into van der Pals’ recycling of the first movement’s theme a sense of fatalistic retreat – a feeling reinforced by the way in the music’s expression is remorselessly sullen here. By contrast, the finale sees clouds passing and suddenly the music is suffused in late-Romantic warmth – affirmative, lyrically rich and even quasi-orchestral in the fulsome close.

The quartet had to wait until 1923 for its premiere. His second quartet followed in 1925 but he only ever heard a private run-through of the first movement. Speculation as to why the work wasn’t given a performance is probably idle but its genesis was the death of his friend Rudolf Steiner in March of that year. The resultant work was composed in Dalpe in the Swiss Alps and has a cleanliness and freedom from anxiety. It’s also cast in four movements, largely romantic with moments of overt lyric richness, as well as possessing a cool underlay of melancholy.  The scherzo is crisp and of the ostinato type whilst the finale progresses with mellifluous logic and harmonic rationality. If this was a reaction to Steiner’s death – van der Pals had attended the funeral – it’s a wholesome, elevated and unhistrionic one.

The Third Quartet is subtitled ‘Metamorphosen’ and followed a few years later. At only thirteen minutes it’s by some way the shortest of these three quartets and one feels a constant development throughout its compact length, something of a striving principle of his but one that becomes overwhelmingly discernible in this work. The sense of this development – which admits slower material as well as running pizzicati figures – gives the quartet a sense of evolution and texture too. Melancholy is not ignored – it’s here especially in the viola line – but the quartet ends in propulsive optimism.

The final work is In Memoriam Marie Steiner, Op.176 which is clearly related biographically, if not necessarily musically, to the Second Quartet. It was written in 1948 and is a brief five-minute piece in which the viola, once again, affirms the meditative-melancholy aspect of van der Pals’ writing.

The Swedish ensemble that bears the composer’s name have been performing together for over a decade. They’re a nuanced quartet, sensitive as to voice leading and sonority and make a fine corporate sound. The recording in the Konserthuset, Helsingborg is a touch too wide for my own tastes but it’s not billowy and once the music is underway I suspect you’ll be focused on that. The notes are very helpful and quote plentifully from the composer’s diary.

Are van der Pals’ quartets essential listening? No, in all honesty, they’re not. However, they are personal, personable, quietly elevated and definably melancholic in places, energising elsewhere. If that sounds like a worthwhile combination, you could do worse than lend an ear.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Rob Barnett (September 2023)

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music