Alfredo ARACIL (b.1954)
String Quartet no.3 (2004) [18:18]
Música de Cámara (String Quartet no.1) (1975) [16:22]
String Quartet no.2 (1991) [10:08]
String Quartet no.4 Figura Ante el Espejo (2010) [17:49]
Cuarteto Bretón (Anne Marie North (violin); Antonio Cárdenas (violin); Iván Martín (viola); John Stokes (cello))
rec. Madrid, May 2010. DDD
VERSO VRS 2095 [62:43]
This release contains Spanish composer Alfredo Aracil's complete string quartets to date, spanning thirty-five years of creativity. Aracil has never been a prolific composer, and an internet search suggests that this is only the second disc of his music to be published to date. 
The String Quartet no.1 is rather generically entitled Música de Cámara ('Chamber Music'), after the book of poems by James Joyce. Like Joyce's writing itself, this is an enigmatic work - a quartet in suspended animation. Nothing really happens, as such: there is no sense of narrative or structure, just a succession of long, drawn-out sostenuti, either as low drones or high-pitched squeals, interspersed with brief moments of silence. All three movements are slow, with few bursts of activity or loudness. Aracil composed this the year following composition classes at Darmstadt given by Stockhausen, Kagel, Wolff and Xenakis, and although their influences are clearly lurking, this does not sound like any of them. Appropriately, it ends without ending, so to speak. Clearly not a work of immediate wide appeal, but there is certainly more to it than the above description implies.
The two-movement String Quartet no.2 was written more than fifteen years later, but although quite different in some respects, the interest in silence and the passage or non-passage of time is once again striking. There is now simple melody, harmony and rhythm. There is also serialist treatment of material, which is mainly derived, unlikely as it seems, from the Cavatina of Beethoven's String Quartet op.130. The second movement is the only one in all Aracil's quartets to have some faster music in it.
Almost another fifteen years passed before Aracil's String Quartet no.3 was written. This work is rather like a musical mountain-climb - slowly, almost imperceptibly, the listener is taken to higher and higher plateaux, with rubbed strings sounding like laboured breathing as the atmosphere becomes more and more rarefied over the slowly unfolding time-span. All the while some semblance of a generally accessible quartet is played out, the strings swirling around moodily like mountain mists. The violins in particular have to play some extremely high notes - the final pitches are of Mount Everest summit proportions, and the skill with which the Bretón Quartet sustain the sound is, aptly, breathtaking. A visionary, spellbinding work.
Bizarrely, the Fourth String Quartet begins literally almost exactly where the Third leaves off, despite the fact that it was written six years later. This work was commissioned by the Spanish Ministry of Culture and dedicated to the Bretón Quartet. It is subtitled Figura ante el Espejo ('Figure Before the Mirror', inaccurately translated as 'Figure Facing the Mirror' in the booklet), and purports to be a reflection on reflection, as it were - subtly altered perceptions of reality. Thus the opening passages are a backwards distortion of the closing bars of the Third Quartet, and from there angles and refractions subtly deflect the music. The booklet notes explain this, but in slightly awkward translation of a Spanish text of already considerable post-modern density - giving sentences like: "we are also made to feel that we remain in suspension, like the poetic text or music itself; music which transcends itself by becoming more sonorous and leading us to no other place but its own centre." Overall, the quartet is quite similar to the Third, but with reminiscences of the First - as if Aracil were in some way completing a circle.
None of these works is easy listening; not by any means. The acoustic world created for this medium by Aracil is like no one else's. It is possible that he shares some of Gloria Coates's deconstructive aims in her quartets, but his methods and effects are quite different. Aracil's quartets are innovative, taxing and unsettling, but they are not unmusical - there are no ear-bludgeoning dissonances or cacophonous tutti here. For the intrepid explorer of new music, this is a relatively straightforward challenge - and possibly a satisfying experience. Certainly, the very capable Bretón Quartet pull all the strings at their disposal to make it so.
The sound quality is generally very good, but there are some audible editing joins dotted about the disc, and one or two misplaced twangs right at a couple of track-ends. The booklet is attractive and the notes informative, even if the language they are written in is rather extravagant.
None of these works is easy listening but the very capable Bretón Quartet pull all the strings at their disposal to make it a satisfying experience.