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Either/Or plays Helmut Lachenmann: Either/Or, Goethe Institut, New York City, 10. 3. 2008 (BH)

Lachenmann: Salut für Caudwell (1977)

Lachenmann: String Quartet No. 3 "Grido"

Jennifer Choi, violin
Hrabba Atladottir,
Dov Scheindlin, viola
Alex Waterman, cello
David Shively, guitar
Richard Carrick,

Last year, Richard Carrick and David Shively, the two founders of Either/Or, presented the New York premiere of Salut für Caudwell, Helmut Lachenmann's "deconstruction of Spanish guitar technique," and I secretly hoped that these two musicians would present it again.  Prayers were answered, and if anything, this reading, virtually one year later, was even more staggeringly assured.  Last year's had a "wow, let's see what we can find in this piece" sense of adventure, and I was happy to join these intrepid spelunkers on their quest.  But this time, the reading had the authority of those who have lived with the music and allowed it to penetrate and develop—much like a string quartet that would rehearse and perform the late quartets of Beethoven over time.

With the modest space at the Goethe Institut packed like a rock concert, the room was buzzing with energy, the venerable composer seated in the very front row.  For most of its length, Salut für Caudwell requires the performers to pluck, rap, scrape and ping the two guitars, only occasionally using the instrument for its pitch capabilities.  Often the performers will pull the string so far that it snaps violently against the fingerboard, in effect asking the instrument to demonstrate its percussive range.  During the final five minutes or so, the two players rub the face of the guitars in precisely prescribed patterns, creating a soft, yet disciplined fabric of rustling sounds.  I have never heard a guitar piece even remotely similar to what Lachenmann is exploring here, and Carrick and Shively could not have been more dedicated in pursuing the composer's singular vision.

Lachenmann's Gran Torso (1972), his first string quartet, is assembled primarily from pressing, scraping and scratching sounds.  His second, from 1989 and subtitled Reigen seliger Geister (Dance of the Blessed Spirits) expands on that language, adding an array of ultra-quiet whooshes and what sometimes sounds like gas escaping at a low volume.  The third, Grido (2001), to my ears announces a dramatic evolution, with a complex array of sounds and remarkable detail, with each moment precisely notated for pitch, volume and attack.  The players pluck, thump, knock and scrape the wood, bowing the strings, the sides, the bridge and the scrolls of their instruments.  Basically any sound that can be made, is made, with melody receding into the background, and texture, phrasing and color surging up front.  Sometimes it felt as if we were in a darkened room, watching the four players—Jennifer Choi and Hrabba Atladottir on violins, Dov Scheindlin on viola and Alex Waterman on cello—playing madly with a box of lit fireworks.

To call the performance here "alert" would be a huge understatement.  Each member of this outstanding quartet was in keen alignment with the others, ever-ready to plunge in to the composer's tingling sound world.  This is a work in which phrases are important, but each individual note as well is freighted with meaning, and although it is dazzling to hear, it must be a nightmare to learn.  The composer, applauding as loudly as anyone, stood for a huge ovation at the end, with the excited crowd cheering as he and the quartet were eventually joined by Mr. Carrick and Mr. Shively for a group bow.

Afterwards, one of the violinists confessed that she didn't quite know what to think when first confronted with this score, never mind beginning to rehearse it. Hearing it, I can only empathize with her temporary bafflement, all the while chuckling at how magnificently she and the three others exceeded the challenge.

Bruce Hodges

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