Boris YOFFE (b.1968)
I sought him but I found him not [12:30]
My own vineyard I did not keep [4:21]
I sleep, but my heart waketh [13:57]
My head is filled with dew, my locks with drops of the night [11:05]
My soul went forth when he spoke [10:00]
Rosamunde Quartett
The Hilliard Ensemble
rec. November 2009, Propstei St. Gerold
ECM NEW SERIES 2174 [52:34]

With the Rosamunde Quartett having disbanded in 2010, this strikingly beautiful programme and recording is given added poignancy through being their last recording. Russian-born Israeli composer Boris Yoffe began writing one-page pieces for string quartet – one a day – in 1995. His “Book of Quartets” now has several thousand of these pages, and the pieces on this recording were selected by the players and the composer from work done in the three or four years preceding this recording. These works include single-page compositions from a related project in which the string quartet was mirrored by addition of four singers, creating the Song of Songs. As the composer writes, “this recording is a handwritten collection of verses, in which the quartet poems are accompanied by the tenderly coloured miniatures of the sung pieces.”

The result is an extraordinary span of deeply expressive string quartet music, the sometimes brief, even almost aphoristic nature of some of the ‘pages’ connecting in terms of mood and style, but remaining contrasting and distinct. Such a series would seem to run the risk of sounding fragmentary and formless, but the fascinating nature of the material gives the impression more of an unfolding exploration than a disjointed mosaic. There are long periods in which the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble are silent, which makes their entry all the more magical. We’ve heard them more than once before in the St. Gerold acoustic, and the music sounds as if it was written especially for these musicians and this environment, something which the composer endorses; “even now I can’t believe my good fortune.”

Paul Griffiths in his booklet note describes this recording as “a sampling of eternity”. The vast nature of the quartet and songs project means that any complete performance would take days, and even then its completeness would be a dubious fact. This sense of infinity is emphasised by the way the recording opens and closes without fuss, fanfare or cadence. Griffiths also point out the essential stylistic nature of the music itself. “At almost any moment one might feel oneself to be listening to a quartet from the central tradition as it stood about a century ago, something by a hitherto contemporary of Schoenberg and Reger.” He also describes the layers of melancholy and lament embedded in both the musical material as “firmly in the Jewish cultural tradition”, and the ways in which we might experience it. His comments sum up the nature of this music so well it would be like re-inventing the wheel not to paraphrase him: “all around us is limitlessness and loss, but this is something, a something which can only ever end with a question.”

In many ways this is the perfect ECM disc. This is rare, exquisite music which you won’t find anywhere else, recorded in the ideal environment and performed by musicians who are absolutely attuned to the expressive worlds sought by the composer. The only negative is a complete lack of information on the texts, which are also not printed in the booklet.

Dominy Clements

The perfect ECM disc, rare and exquisite.