Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
String Quartet No.2 ‘Company’ (1983) [7:56]
String Quartet No.3 ‘Mishima’ (1985) [17:18]
String Quartet No.1 (1966) [16:33]
String Quartet No.4 ‘Buczak’(1989) [22:29]
Carducci String Quartet
rec. 8-10 December 2008, Holy Innocents Church, Highnam, Gloucestershire, U.K.
NAXOS 8.559636 [64:16]  

With five string quartets to his name, this disc represents the bulk of Philip Glass’s contribution to the genre. The earliest, String Quartet No.1, comes from the period just before Glass began exploring what we would recognise today as ‘true’ minimalism. Aspects of a minimalistic approach are beginning to crystallise however, related however more to the alternative scales and cyclical repetitions of Asian music, as well as the restricted use of material represented by John Cage. The result is a kind of rough-hewn Morton Feldman in miniature, each segment holding its own ‘universe in a grain of sand’, but still seeking a truly effective framework on which to hang and develop the ideas.
In the end, it was as much the framework which became the essence of the music which Glass was to be creating within a short space of time from the String Quartet No.1, and with a period working and performing with his own ensemble’s energetic sound. The programme of this disc opens with the String Quartet No.2, originally written as a set of four interludes for a stage production of Samuel Beckett’s poem ‘Company’. The first of these sees Glass at his most lyrically poignant, with the violin floating its few eloquent melodic notes over a gently undulating accompaniment. The quartet has a musical feel which can in general be compared with Glass’s 1983 opera Akhnaten, the second movement alternating moments of dramatically energetic and quieter more anticipatory ostinato. The third returns to the feel of the first, with a more restless feel, building to a brief but heavily portentous climax. The final movement has similar dynamic contrasts to the second, but mainly projects a feel of diffuse intensity - a handkerchief waved from the bridge of a diving submarine, purposeful and lost at the same time.
The String Quartet No. 3 also has extra-musical origins, having been made for a film about the remarkable Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. The entire film score included work for full orchestra, but extracting the string quartet sections to create a concert piece was a logical idea, as these moments went closest in association with the subject of the film and have their own sense of unity. The harmonies and character of the movements remind me most of Glass’s 1986 ‘Songs for Liquid Days’ album, though through the familiar rocking figurations and cyclical patterns the quartet music does have a more classically bound feel which is only partly to do with the medium. Most inventive is the third movement, Grandmother and Kimitake, which goes beyond the expected in both harmonies and rhythm, and much of the rest has a poignant feel which makes for a soothing and at times moving listening experience.
The longest and latest of the quartets on this disc, and the only one in three parts, the String Quartet No.4 stands apart from Nos. 2 and 3 in being a pure concert piece. The work was a commission in memory of artist Brian Buczak, but the richness of its material and sonorities has less to do with the New York modern art world than a referring back to the medium of the string quartet as a carrier of some of Western music’s most serious and expressive musical statements through history. The first movement has some potent bi-tonal harmonic effects through Glass’s restless hallmark figurations. The second movement, one of Glass’s finest, also has some intriguing sonorities, initially pairing the violins in a lament expressed in octaves, carried by the viola and cello, also paired in a simple but highly effective ground. These ideas develop, the violins becoming an equal duetting pair of voices before the cello is freed to introduce its own melodic character, bringing along the violin with its song. The final movement returns to more typical Glass hemiolas and figurations, though again this is filled with affecting melodic gestures and a finely balanced, sculptural sense of poise.
This release has competition from the complete quartets (1-5) from Paul Smith Quartet on Signum Classics and the Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch, though this only deals with Quartets 2-5. This very fine Naxos disc undercuts both by a considerable price margin, and is therefore almost an instant recommendation, especially when you consider the quality of performance and recording on offer. The Carducci Quartet is clearly an excellent young ensemble. As far as I am concerned they don’t put a foot wrong in these performances, which are filled with marvellously expressive phrasing and a keen sense of colour and nuance. If you like Philip Glass’s mature style then you will find a great deal to appreciate here. There is a distinct and satisfying lack of pretension, and none of the ‘hard core’ minimalism which many listeners can find hard to stomach. With the extra-musical associations many of the pieces have you can expect a similar sense of atmosphere to, for instance, some of Michael Nyman’s more gentle later film music style.
Dominy Clements

A very fine disc indeed. 

see also review by Nick Barnard