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António Pinho VARGAS:
Monodia - quasi un requiem
João Pedro OLIVEIRA:
Alexandre DELGADO:
Eugénio Manuel RODRIGUES:
Mata Hari

Arditti Quartet
ET'CETERA KTC 1242 [66.52]
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According to the notes, these five Portuguese composers, born between 1951 and 1969, all have "very different and very distinctive voices which illustrate the great richness and diversity of composition in Portugal today". For at least the first half of the disc I felt that a root fear of presenting sounds which might conceivably appear in any way connected with each other was reducing the whole bunch of them to a common denominator. This is especially notable in the opening Vargas Monodia where the various unassociated scrapes are mostly separated by long pauses. And yet the ear will keep trying to make its own sense of what it hears. There's no getting away from it, if you start off with two whines on a G and then a plonk on an E flat some irreverent soul is going to say "E flat major", and that would never do. (To my ears the piece homes in on D major near the end, too). Occasional hints that the music might be leading somewhere prove vain, though the casual listener might suppose that it does finally break into a flurry of activity. But no, this is the second piece on the programme, Oliveira's Peregrinaçáo.

There is certainly a lot more to grab the ear in this, with a wide range of often extraordinary sounds extracted from just four stringed instruments, including a remarkably convincing imitation of a dog barking, I thought until I glanced out of the window and realised that a dog actually was barking in the courtyard. It's stimulating in its way though I'm not quite sure whether it comes from some inner need of the composer's or whether, like the Duchess's baby, "He only does it to annoy/Because he knows it teases". (To which I suppose Oliveira could retort that Chris Howell "can thoroughly enjoy/The pepper when he pleases").

Delgado's Quarteto is conventional by comparison, at times not far off a Hindemithian busyness though without any memorable features. The Quarteto by Luís Tinoco is the one work here which might tempt me back. Not so much for the first movement, which provides another dose of tiresome fragmentation, but the mysterious rustlings of the central movement are genuinely fascinating and the finale, where slow Bergian fragments (the piece was written to the memory of Berg) are played off against a spiky rhythmic background, has some purpose.

Rodrigues's Mata Hari is an unexceptional, relatively conventional work, more minimal than minimalist in its repetitiveness. An engaging feature of the disc (nice to be able to report that there is one) is that although Mata Hari appears to end at 10'33" as advertised, the disc goes on playing for another seven minutes. I say "seems" since, to tell the truth, I had the idea it might still be continuing below the sound barrier (it's a wide ranging recording) and for a while I even seemed to hear a ghostly sound of music mingling not unpleasantly with the pneumatic drills, rotary-mowers and foul oaths in Southern Italian dialect which wafted in through the window. But no, on turning the volume up to the absolute maximum I realised I was mistaken and we do just get seven minutes of silence (this is the ET'CETERA label, after all). As I said, it's a not unpleasing epilogue though I wonder if the John Cage estate shouldn't be claiming royalties on it.

I suppose some readers are going to get het up and write in to ask why the hell the disc wasn't given to someone more in sympathy with this sort of stuff. Well, I didn't ask for it and I suppose I could have sent it back. But why should contemporary music always be the preserve of mutual admiration societies, guaranteed to find a good word for everything they hear? How about, just once in a while, somebody writing about it whose views are, I assure you, in line with the general public's? Come to that, if my lamented Aunty Winifred were still alive I could have invited her comment, confident that she would have come up with the two words she reserved for everything later than Debussy, and which might yet strike a sympathetic chord with some readers: "BLOODY ROW!"

Christopher Howell

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