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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 (Matthew Denton (violin); Michelle Fleming (violins); Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola); Emma Denton (cello))
rec. Holy Innocents Church, Higham, Gloucestershire, England 8-10 December 2008
NAXOS 8.559636 [64:16]

Experience Classicsonline

I find it quite hard to grasp the idea that Philip Glass is now well into his eighth decade and firmly part of the musical establishment. Minimalism has travelled such a long way from the experiments with looping and phasing tapes in the 1960s which pushed boundaries musical, social and political. Steve Reich’s Come Out from 1966 is still as disturbing and oddly hallucinatory today as it was then and a quantum remove from the chocolate box delights of much modern day minimalism. But then Reich, at the vanguard of what has become known as minimalism was, and probably remains, at heart more of a radical than Glass or John Adams – which is probably why I prefer his compositions more.

It has always struck me as something of a paradox that both Glass and Adams have had great success in the field of theatre, opera and film using music which in its essentially static form is anti-dramatic. Listening to this disc, it struck me that the string quartet as a format is a very effective vehicle for what one might term the pure ideal of minimalism. What I mean by this is that you have four similar-sounding instruments, capable of blending to produce a homogeneity of tone in which the slowly changing variations of pitch or rhythm blur imperceptibly so that the journey from start to finish is achieved incrementally with few definable ‘events’. This kind of music is far harder to play well than it might first appear. Players need to be able to maintain an absolute even-ness of sound, pure intonation and strip their playing of the natural expressiveness you spend the rest of your career cultivating. All praise to the Carducci Quartet who do such a tremendous job here. I wouldn’t mind having a bet that they left three days of sessions for these quartets utterly exhausted – it takes a ferocious amount of concentration to play with the control they display throughout. Another feature of this type of music is that the traditional roles of lead instrument and accompaniments is almost totally dispensed with. In fact equal voicing of parts is paramount to the music’s impact – the players need to create a barren almost featureless plain out of which the smallest musical hillock can then register with disproportionate impact. Not that this is barren music or lacking in expression rather that the range of expression, the emotional palette as such, is redefined.

This CD contains four of Glass’s five essays in the string quartet form – three earlier efforts have been disowned. For reasons about which I am not totally clear they are programmed here in the sequence 2; 3; 1; 4 but I will comment on them in numerical order. I mentioned the Reich work earlier because Glass’s String Quartet No.1 also dates from 1966. Although only a year older than Glass, by the mid-1960s Reich had already created his own very individual voice. This early Glass quartet represents a composer still in search of his. I had forgotten that Glass studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and this work represents him striking out on his own trying to reconcile non-serial/tonal composition with Eastern philosophies. So we do have little motivic fragments that are repeated and obsessed over in true minimalist style but without the continuous pulse that has grown to represent one of the cornerstones of the Glass style. This is far more overtly dramatic music than the later works with a higher level of dissonance and the sections with the movements much more clearly defined. The Carduccis play throughout with a cool assurance that seems to fit the idiom perfectly. The internal balancing of the voices is really well achieved and unlike many quartets they are not afraid to play truly quietly – to the point where the instruments’ tone thins and weakens. I’m sure this etiolated, winnowed sound is exactly what Glass had in mind and it gives the music a haunted spectral quality that works especially well. As with most minimalist music my problem is more one of the overall development of the musical work – passing gestures and moments impress but by the end of the work I am not sure quite what the journey has achieved. The end of the first part of the quartet [track 11] is a case in point – why does the music stop this time where previously there had been only a hiatus; particularly since the second movement picks up on motifs that are very similar indeed to those immediately preceding it.

Glass was not to return to the medium of the String Quartet for another seventeen years. Both the second and third quartets derive from scores originally written for other media. In the case of the String Quartet No.2 it was for a staging of the Becket poem Company whilst for String Quartet No.3 it was the film by Paul Schrader Mishima. If you respond to archetypal ‘tonal’ minimalism than this will prove to be a most pleasurable experience. Again, great credit to the players who tease out from this music every subtle variation in texture, rhythm and pitch. Personally, this is the type of music where the hypnotic meditative quality which this style of music can possess instead tips over into being mind-numbingly boring. There is a degree more variety in the third quartet and the music is as easy on the ear as any sequence of simple chords arpeggiated can be. In Reich’s finest work he transcends the superficial simplicity of form and content to create works that somehow are greater than the sum of the parts – his Clapping Music is a superb example of extraordinary results from literally minimal means. Much of Glass I find to be only the sum of those parts which in turn are not that considerable – good music to do something else to. I come back to my original point that this is a curious a-dramatic work considering its original purpose.

The String Quartet No.4 which closes the disc is subtitled Buczak after the artist Brian Buczak in whose memory this work was commissioned. This is the most substantial – and longest - work of the group and to my ears the most interesting by some distance. Glass allows the musical contours of the work to be more sharply defined as is clear from the very opening where a series of strong unison chords demand attention. This gesture recurs through the movement, alternating with more typically undulating arpeggiated chordal figurations. Again the blended sonority of the Carduccis is heard to great effect. It is worth mentioning at this point that the engineering is by John Taylor. His is not a name I have seen on Naxos discs in the past but he has produced (and engineered and edited) a very high quality disc. Not much of the church acoustic is present excepting an attractive ambient warmth which suits the music admirably. The instruments are quite closely recorded but – as mentioned above – the players exploit the quieter dynamics beautifully and the recording captures this faithfully. So all in all an excellent aural balance between intimacy, detail and ambience – just like having the best seat at a chamber music concert. Of all the movements on the CD I like the middle movement of this quartet the most [track 14]. Here the fusion of the gestures of the genre with an emotional landscape both bleak and desolate seems most perfectly achieved – the tools of the one serving the goal of the other. The two violins circle each other like some fragile hanging mobile over a muted rocking figure from the quartet’s lower instruments. At about 3:30 into this movement the song-like melody moves to the cello and a more continuous rocking figure is played by the upper strings. The Carduccis are excellent at projecting the inhibited emotion of this passage – it must be tempting to ‘play out’ more here. A quieter recollection of the quartet’s opening chords opens the last movement – control as ever the key. There is a cadential chorale-like quality to this sequence of very ordinary chords that gives the music a valedictory air. The ending, after one last scalic descent from the violin, seems rather abrupt but it’s a musical effect Glass seems fond of – the central movement stops in a similar way.

I have not heard any of the competing versions. From the catalogue alone it is clear that these would seem to be popular works both with quartets and collectors. The Carduccis are up against some very stiff opposition – in particular from the Smith Quartet who are renowned specialists in contemporary string repertoire and the Kronos Quartet – commissioners of the 4th and 5th Quartets. The Smith’s set on Signum includes the 5th Quartet but that comes, quite literally, at the price of a second full-price disc. With the Naxos price advantage and over an hour’s music this current disc is worthy of serious consideration in such esteemed company. Admirers of Glass’s euphonious tonal minimalism will find much to give them pleasure. For my taste this is too much the comfy-armchair school of contemporary music. Not that is lacks appeal just that it does not command my attention.

Nick Barnard



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