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CD: Crotchet

Quartetto con Forza
Mats Larsson GOTHE (b. 1965)
String Quartet Visioni ed estasi (2004) [16:11]
Anders HILLBORG (b. 1954)
Kongsgaard variations (2006) [15:34]
Per MÅRTENSSON (b. 1967)
String Quartet No.1 Sediments of Discourse (2007-8) [23:27]
Mika PELO (b. 1971)
Up, Down, Charm, Strange (2008) [14:09]
Stenhammar Quartet
rec. 9-11 December 2008, 5-7 March 2009, Studio 3, Radiuhuset, Stockholm.
Experience Classicsonline

Quartetto con Forza is part of series of 'con forza' releases from the Phono-Suecia label, which cover contemporary repertoire for a wide diversity of instruments and ensemble combinations. The booklet notes open with an establishment of the context of the contemporary string quartet with giants of the past: 'Genres have their cycles', and it would appear that we are now all a bit more relaxed about writing for string quartet without worrying too much about the symbolic weight attached to it by greats such as Beethoven, Bartók and Shostakovich. Whew.

This is an intriguing programme of recent works by Swedish composers. Mats Larsson Gothe's String Quartet 'Visioni ed estasi' is his third in this genre, the title being ready-made in a nice anecdote which sees the composer standing outside St. Peter's in Rome when the call for the commission comes in. The central musical motif popped into the composers mind at the same time he read the title on a poster for an art exhibition. The four note central motif dominates this single movement piece, being treated as a basis for some luminous harmonic moments, as well as disappearing into some wilder transformations of rhythm and dissonance. Bartók is held as an inspiration by Larsson Gothe, and indeed some of the expressive atmosphere and earthy impact of this can be traced back to this forebear. This is an intense 'dialogue with tradition' in both form and content, and creates a fascinating musical landscape.

Another single movement piece is the Kongsgaard Variations by Anders Hillborg. As the title already suggests, tradition and models of the past are very much a part of this piece, and references to Beethoven through further entertaining but rather convoluted anecdote infuse this work with plenty of tonal refreshment. The piece is 'Adagio molto' in its basic physical presence, but there is no lingering or time wasting. Variations of material both simple and complex in both musical content and instrumental colour move across the listener's consciousness in a kaleidoscope of ideas and references. Erik Wallrup describes this in his booklet notes as a 'philosophical contemplation of pleasure', which sums up this gorgeous and, towards its conclusion very moving music very well indeed.

Per Mårtensson's String Quartet No.1 'Sediments of Discourse', owes its title to references which use the word 'sediment' as a metaphor for 'the detritus of history.' The piece is divided into four movements: Fragments, Patterns, Scherzo and Drama. These somewhat abstract allusions provide some clues here, as does the information that the composer's style has been 'characterised by his efforts to broaden the tonal spectrum as a singularly persevering developer of live electronic music.' Compositional techniques based on algorithmically generated rhythmic structures also have an important role to play in this music, but in the end it is the effect on the listener which needs communicating. All of the previous information suggests difficulties, but while the idiom is less overtly rooted in the comforts of tonality and certain types of convention than the previous two works, there is some remarkable music to be found here. The first movement almost vanishes entirely for a whole section, so extreme is the quiet of the dynamic. Patterns drives on with a compulsive rhythmic motion which can be heard as having as much to do with folk influence as anything strictly mathematical or modular. The Scherzo movement, which has the word 'process' as its subtitle, explores this mathematical solution, largely around a single note, played with varying kinds of pizzicato. I have no argument against this kind of work, but the result is more that of an experimental sketch than a satisfyingly developed and resolved piece of music. The final Drama, subtitled 'twisted process', broadening and extending previous ideas into something which indeed does have something of the melodramatic in its musical dialogues and shadowy imagery.  

Mika Pelo
's Up, Down, Charm, Strange brings us back to the single-movement format. A revision of a string quartet from 2006, the title comes from string theory, each of the words being applied to types of quarks. The piece falls within what the composer himself refers to in his own work as 'controlled dreaming'. This can be described as a rather intangible basis: a kind of ethereal dream character, upon which constantly shifting and changing material leads the listener through a mind of musical labyrinth - altering direction without warning, never remaining on a single idea for long, rarely developing the idea for long before introducing new elements or transforming entirely. In some ways this works like an M.C. Escher drawing, but without the element of visual predictability to massage the mind into an illusion of comfort. While the structure and nature of the music stubbornly refuses to allow the listener to find refuge in cyclic forms or repetition, there is plenty of intriguing harmonic and timbral colour with which one can engage one's intellect. The tug-of-war between what can simultaneously be experienced as static and dynamic creates its own frisson, and there is plenty of surprise to be had in the twists and turns which draw their filigree lines throughout this piece.

The Stenhammar Quartet was formed in 2002 from leading orchestral musicians, and with its strong profile in working with contemporary music they play the works in this programme with authority and attractive panache. The recording is excellent. While the Quartetto con Forza might imply an aural assault, this would be a great injustice to the vibrant creative melting-pot presented here. If you are interested in the cutting edge of Scandinavian string quartet writing, then this is probably the best place to find out where it's at.

Dominy Clements




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