Pohjola SQ 5-7 Alba ABCD470

Seppo Pohjola (b.1965)
String Quartet No 7 (2021)
String Quartet No 6 (2021)
String Quartet No 5 (2018)
The New Helsinki Quartet
rec. 2022, Kuusankoski Hall, Kouvola, Finland
Alba ABCD470 [63]

Seppo Pohjola has composed quite a lot so far, and in many genres. There are six symphonies, two violin concertos, two piano concertos, a cello concerto, nine string quartets, and six operas, one of them for children. The first four string quartets appeared ten years ago on Alba (ABCD 334). This is a second volume in all but name, with the next three quartets.

For whatever reason, the disc has the three quartets in reverse chronological order. Each quartet has its own character, but they make a remarkably coherent whole, stylistically speaking. It appears quite clear that Pohjola’s musical voice is personal enough to give a varied vision of his output.

String Quartet No 5 is a substantial score which more or less falls into two large sections. It was obliquely inspired by a visit that the composer and his wife paid to the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. He admits a strong liking for van Gogh’s paintings. Although the piece is neither about the painter nor about any particular painting of his, the overall mood of the piece is a reflection of his work. That is why, as Pohjola says, it is ‘not a cheerful piece’. Maybe it is not, but there are many impressive moments. The mostly slow-moving opening, as if suspended in time and space, suggests to me Walt Whitman’s words set by Vaughan Williams: ‘O vast Rondure, swimming in space’. The second part, as if to offset the suspended mood of the first part, is somewhat more animated. The music is played forte for minutes towards the end. This is undoubtedly an imposing, deeply-felt piece of music.

String Quartets Nos 6 and 7 were composed in fairly quick succession, in March-April and June-July 2021. They differ in character and mood, but one quickly realizes that they are from the same pen. The composer describes String Quartet No 6 as ‘absolute SturmundDrang’ but admits ‘the frail beauty of life as it floats by’. Indeed, at about halfway into the piece, the music slows down. To me, it tends to evoke trees rustling in the wind, maybe a reminder of, or a back glance at, Sibelius’s Tapiola. The third section looks somewhat back at the opening. The piece ends ticking away before two short-lived flourishes that lead the music into a final ‘ticking episode’ – the passing of time, maybe. Pohjola also mentions quotations from three Finnish folk songs, which I must say passed me by. I suppose that they may help to get into the music, but it sounds superbly wrought and quite expressive in its own way.

String Quartet No 7 opens fairly forcefully and continues with some considerable energy throughout the first part of the work. About halfway into the piece, the music pauses briefly and gives way to what might be experienced as the quartet’s slow movement. This is wonderful, contrapuntal and warmly lyrical passage, a beautiful song accompanied by the cello’s pizzicati. It offers a heart-warming moment of repose before the final, somewhat more cheerful final section that nevertheless has the music eventually tiptoe away lightly.

These wonderfully varied works confirm that Seppo Pohjola’s contrapuntal, strongly expressive music is perfectly suited to the string quartet medium. I also think it is quite clear that the medium means much to him, and that more is likely to come.

The committed and well-prepared readings serve the music well. This release is a must for anyone who knows and appreciates Pohjola’s earlier string quartets. More, please.

Hubert Culot

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