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Kaija SAARIAHO (b.1952)
Nymphéa for string quartet and live electronics (1987) [18’58]
John CAGE (1912-1992)

String Quartet in Four Parts (1949/50) [17’12]
Bruno MADERNA (1920-1973)
Quartetto per archi in due tempi (1955) [13’54]
Cikada String Quartet
Recorded at Sofienberg Church, Oslo, August 2001
ECM NEW SERIES 1799 472 4222 [50’16]

This disc contains some bold and innovative music and is logically programmed.

Saariaho’s extremes of texture, dynamics and sonority may produce the most radical and ‘modern’ sounding music here, but she is the first to admit the debt she owes pioneers of the previous generation, two of whom are featured alongside her here.

Nymphéa is scored for string quartet and live electronics which appear at specified points, mainly taking the form of vocalised sounds that have been ‘doctored’. These moments are, in fact, the gentlest passages in a piece that stretches the quartet medium considerably. The screeching, raging tempest of sound that Saariaho unleashes on us at other times (as at 3’08) shows her IRCAM background and formative training with Ferneyhough. I remember volatile audience reaction at one of her Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival concerts a couple of seasons ago, where one of her best early string quartet pieces, Lichtbogen (1985/6) was performed. Nymphéa follows on logically from that work, showing a marked maturity in use of spectral effects and integration of ideas. It’s not easy listening, but does repay effort and is full of astonishing surprises.

By contrast, the quartet by one of her great avant-garde predecessors is simple, moving and gentle, almost beatific, by comparison. This is quite early Cage, very much discovering his Dada and Zen influences. The markings of the four sections say it all: Quietly Flowing Along: Slowly Rocking: Nearly Stationary and finishing with a Quodlibet. This is music that prefigures the softer minimalism of Glass whilst nodding in the direction of Pärt’s sacred simplicity – pretty far-looking for 1949! The dedication to Lou Harrison is entirely appropriate.

It’s also good to see a piece by another influential but scandalously under-represented composer, Boulez’s great friend Bruno Maderna. He is possibly best known for his 1950s Darmstadt summer school lectures, thus providing another neat and surely intentional link to Saariaho, who herself has acknowledged the debt to Girard Grisey’s Darmstadt sessions. The Maderna quartet is not quite as frighteningly extreme as the booklet writer suggests (and nowhere as dissonant as the Saariaho) but coming from 1955 it does betray those typically strident, confrontationally intellectual traits of so much music from that period, where post-Webern ‘total serialism’ ruled. The dedication is to his great friend and countryman Berio, with whom he founded Studio di Fonologia in Milan and also makes perfect sense when you hear the piece.

Mention here must be of the performances by the Cikada Quartet, made up of three siblings and a close friend. The rapport shows and even the densest, most difficult of passages is played with a lucidity and unanimity that is thrilling. The recording, as one might expect from Manfred Eicher’s ECM source, is superb. I’ve enjoyed a lot of ECM’s New Series, where imaginative planning is allied to top-notch musicianship and sound quality, and this is up there with the best of them.

Tony Haywood


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