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Nikolaus BRASS (b.1949)
erinnern und vergessen – String Quartet No.3 (2004) [28:07]
String Quartet No.2 (1999-2000/2002) [35:33]
ohne titel – Music for String Quartet (1996) [6:45]
Auritus Quartet
rec. 8-9 June 2005, 27-28 May 2006, Bavaria Music Studios, Munich
COL LEGNO WWE 20238 [70:46]

I had never heard of Nikolaus Brass before acquiring this CD, and having a quick hunt through the internet I wasn’t able to find out a great deal beyond the short biography which is given in the booklet notes. He was born in Lindau, on Lake Constance, and published his first compositions while still in school there. He studied and still practises medicine, and received private tuition in composition from teachers who included Helmut Lachenmann. He has received numerous awards and been performed at many of Europe’s leading contemporary music festivals.

Looking at the timings of the two main works on this disc, and one might expect multi-movement blockbusters. erinnern und vergessen – String Quartet No.3 is indeed divided into two unequal sections, but scale in this work has little to do with divisions, being a strange journey through time, shaped by often gentle, intimate gestures. There is a certain amount of tonal disorientation brought about by the use of microtones, but once you accept the unfamiliar intervals and melodic relationships as having these close-knit connections as part of their musical DNA, the ear can learn to accept the language and begin to appreciate some of its expressive strength. At first, the uncomfortably rocking asymmetrical melodic see-saws and glissandi can seem meandering and formless, but you have to give this kind of music the time in which it exists – and the time beyond, in which it remains in your imagination. Listeners already familiar with the kinds of framework in which Morton Feldman’s music exist will have fewer problems: Feldman was indeed a pivotal influence on Brass when they met during the Darmstadt Summer Courses in 1980 and 1989.

Where the String Quartet No.3 is said to be more overtly expressive and introverted, the String Quartet No.2 as Brass explains, ‘seeks with all its intensity to preserve the moment of the now before it slips away irretrievably.’ The close intervals cluster into knotted lengths of muted string sounds at the opening of the work, and this veiled reaching out from and into the depths of some surreal world of sound and expression are a characteristic of Brass’s idiom. The strings are rarely played conventionally, instead portraying thin and ghostly shadows of flautando, or vibrato-free brushstrokes, the bows often barely touch the strings. A strange unisono melody is telegraphed, or low murmurings suggest secretive discussions, the beginnings and endings of which never being clearly delineated. It is as if we are at the centre of two vanishing points, receiving fragments or partial images of messages being passed between invisible places, just beyond a horizon of silence.

The earliest work on the disc, ohne titel, has a connection to the sculpture of its dedicatee, one K.H. Hoffmann – on whom I have been unable to find any further information. The sonic fingerprints of the later works are present in this one in more compact, rather more conventional in execution but still distinctively elusive. The last of the movements has an almost mechanical pattern, developing in cyclic sentences, while others shape music into a kind of metaphor for itself, poetic, but with an open message welcoming the listeners own associations.

The Auritus Quartet of Munich premiered both of the significant later works, and have the subtly disturbing world of all ingrained into their psyche. You can’t imagine hearing better performances, especially when the musicians have clearly worked closely with the composer and understand his intentions exactly. The recording is very good as well, detailed and dynamic without being too remorselessly analytical. As with any ‘new’ music, I can’t promise this will be your cup of tea. You might start listening to this thinking, ‘gawd, not more modern squeaky-gate stuff!’, but if you have ears and a brain and the time and space to listen properly, you won’t be thinking that by the time you’ve finished.

Dominy Clements


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