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Gloria COATES (b.1943)
String Quartet No. 2 (1972)
String Quartet No. 3 (1975)
String Quartet No. 4 (1976-77)
String Quartet No. 7 ‘Angels’ (2000)
String Quartet No. 8 ( 2001-02)
Kreutzer Quartet
Michael Finnissy (Conductor on String Quartet No. 7)
Philip Adams (Organ on String Quartet No. 7)
Recorded at the Church of St. John’s, Loughton, Essex on 18 September 2000 (Quartets 2, 3, 4) and the Church of St. Mary de Haura, New Shoreham, West Sussex on 30 June 2003 (Quartets 7, 8). DDD
NAXOS 8.559152 [64.37]


In an interview the cutting-edge American born composer Gloria Coates chose the following pieces of music as her five desert island discs and stated, "… I would take with me positive music such as ‘The Art of Fugue’ by Bach, Mendelssohn's ‘Midsummer Night's Dream’, Mozart's ‘Magic Flute’, ‘Magnificats’ by Orlando di Lasso, ‘The Four Seasons’ by Vivaldi." This is all very well, but Coates’ own demanding music provides a stark contrast to her conservative choices.

I live near a small airfield where small planes are used for flying lessons. For this reason I am familiar with the persistent drone of planes flying overhead which is evocative of a substantial amount of the glissandi contained in these five string quartets from Gloria Coates. The aircraft-like droning sound is achingly painful and is a consistent thread.

This is certainly challenging music borne out by the fact that even as a teenage student Coates completely perplexed her teacher by composing a string quartet which consisted entirely of glissandi. Coates’ music certainly polarises opinion and it was interesting to hear comments of members of my family as they heard some of the music such as, " I cannot imagine how anyone could listen to this for pleasure" and "this sounds like music to be tortured by."

Please don’t think I’m joking or trying to rubbish her music because I am not. I am being deadly serious and any listener new to the innovative yet disturbing sound-world of Coates deserves to know what to expect. Words that come to mind as I listen to the string quartets are: disturbing, extreme, colourful, repetitive, thought-provoking, imaginative, unrelenting, dissonant, concentrated, austere and relevant.

Many of the CD covers of Coates music have copies of her paintings which show what a multi-talented artiste she is; with a real imagination. Clearly Coates’ imagination must be very vivid to allow her to describe the seventh String Quartet as ’Angels’; it is far more evocative of a vision of hell to me. The booklet notes describe the same Quartet as being redolent of Christmas, owing to musical quotations from several Christmas carols. Christmas indeed! Certainly not the type of Yuletide celebrations that I wish to participate in; more disaster season than festive season, I feel! I really have become suspicious of the descriptive sub-titles given to contemporary compositions by their composers. These usually serve the purpose of mere marketing tools to provoke interest in the work. This practice is nothing new; it has been going on for centuries. In fact, descriptive subtitles can often be more of a hindrance than a help especially if listeners cannot easily make the same connection.

In these quartets the crucial importance of glissandi cannot be overstated together with liberal use of canons, palindromes, ostinatos, dissonant trills, tone clusters et al. All extremely technical, yet I feel that there is no real need to understand all this. Just listen to the music for what it is, not how it is constructed. I am comforted that Coates has stated that, "J.S. Bach has been the greatest influence on my music. For me his greatness lies in his intense emotional expression pressed into exquisite forms. His music has always been an inspiration to me." Ten out of ten for that!

To listen to this CD in a single sitting is not recommended. For me one work, or even one movement, at a time would reveal Coates in the best possible light. Often the listener has to work extremely hard to become familiar with the work of contemporary composers. I fear, that the rewards do not arrive before the required effort diminishes. Coates music is certainly in this category and tremendous endeavour and perseverance is required. I cannot help thinking that my appreciation of this music would be enhanced by the addition of a visual element; a nice thought if totally impractical anyway.

The commitment and technical prowess of the Kreutzer Quartet (augmented by an organist and conductor for the seventh String Quartet) is not in question although how could one determine the merit of their interpretations in complex works such as these. Praise is due to the Naxos engineers who have excelled with the sound quality, although just over sixty minutes of music is not over-generous these days.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to listen to these string quartets. Together with the earlier recording of numbers one, five and six (8.559091) Naxos have now recorded all eight works. I cannot say that the experience was entirely pleasurable because it was not and I have been left with a plethora of complex feelings by this extremely challenging music. Will I be returning to these works? I doubt it somehow!

Michael Cookson


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