This CD is a real showcase for the talents of the young JACK Quartet who specialize
in late twentieth-century and contemporary music. I would have
loved to attend the concert at the Wigmore Hall from which this
recording was taken, but will have the opportunity to hear them
live when they come to the Barns at Wolf Trap near Washington,
DC next January. There, in addition to the Ligeti Quartet No.
2, they will perform the Brahms Clarinet Quintet (with clarinetist
Derek Bermel) -something outside their normal repertoire. Here
they are clearly at home and produce as exciting performances
as one is likely to hear of these works.
Although the booklet notes are rather detailed and an interesting
read, they are really inadequate when it comes to giving background
on either the works or the quartet. The quartet, which first
played together in 2003 as students at the Eastman School of
Music in Rochester, New York, chose their name based on the
first letter of each of their first names. Thus, we know what
the acronym JACK stands for! They now reside in New York City
and perform throughout the world both in concert venues and
alternative locations. They have already made a name for themselves
in their sterling performances of contemporary music. The programme
here, therefore, is typical.
Of the four works presented on this disc one has become a classic,
Ligeti’s Quartet No. 2 was composed for the LaSalle Quartet,
and has received quite a number of superbly recorded performances.
The JACK Quartet studied with the Arditti Quartet, who contributed
the Ligeti quartets in Sony’s Ligeti Edition and have
nothing to fear here from their illustrious predecessor. They
also measure up well to two other current favorites, those by
the Parker Quartet on Naxos - which I reviewed here earlier
and which won a Grammy Award in 2011 - and the Artemis Quartet
on Virgin Classics. Those recordings were part of all-Ligeti
programmes while this performs a different but equally valuable
function by allowing the listener to compare and contrast chamber
works that have some things in common - creating music purely
as sound at times with dynamic extremes and complex technical
challenges - but that are individual and easily identified as
uniquely by their composers. One would never mistake the Ligeti
for a work of someone else, though it also shows the influence
of his Hungarian forebear, Bartók, in its five-movement
structure. The third movement, Come un meccanismo di precisione,
with its pizzicato plunking like some machine gone awry, is
similar to the one he included in the Chamber Concerto he composed
around the same time, and is one of Ligeti’s trademarks.
The JACK Quartet captures the many moods of the quartet well
including its humour, but also the introspection pervasive in
the final movement.
The other quartet that may be familiar to listeners is the Xenakis
Tetras, one of this composer’s best-known chamber music
pieces. This is JACK Quartet’s second recording of it,
as they included it in a studio recording as part of the Mode
label’s “Xenakis Edition”. They sound here
as if they are having a great deal of fun with all the effects
Xenakis provides them, at one point (cue up 2:18) sounding like
a bunch of laughing apes! The work cannot be easy to play, however,
and contains enough variety to keep the listener engaged throughout
its lone 16-minute movement. Tetras (“four” in ancient
Greek) was written for the Arditti Quartet, so again interpreting
it is second nature to the JACKs.
The remaining works on the CD provide a contrast to the more
boisterous Ligeti and Xenakis. It is quite a shock going from
either of these to John Cage’s Quartet in Four Parts
with its quiet, vibrato-less writing sounding like something
out of the Middle Ages, except for the harmony and the odd outburst.
It is based in part on an Indian view of the four seasons with
the movements representing 1) Summer: Quietly Flowing Along;
2) Autumn: Slowly Rocking; 3) Winter: Nearly Stationary;
and 4) Spring: Quodlibet. The quartet may sound simple
at times but its unusual combination of chords and rhythmic
structure provide a complexity that is not readily apparent
without a score. After an austere third movement depicting winter,
the finale comes as a jolt with its tune like some Renaissance
dance that stays in the mind long after the work has ended.
The Quartet in Four Parts is one of the last pre-aleatoric
works Cage composed shortly after his Sonatas and Interludes
for Prepared Piano. It is especially good to have included
this quartet on the programme as the release of the CD coincides
with Cage’s centenary.
The second work on the disc is also the newest, Matthias Pintscher’s
Study IV. John Fallas in the booklet notes the strong
personal relationship between the composer and the JACKs, though
the present work apparently was not composed for them. In many
ways it is the most unusual and the most “advanced”
composition here: the lower strings are “prepared”
by inserting metal paperclips near the bridge of the instruments
and the viola’s C and G strings are “retuned”.
This results in a very weird, veiled sound that I am certain
John Cage would have approved. Except for some sudden plunks,
the work is mostly static and very quiet. Of the four works
on the disc, I found this one the hardest to like and think
if I saw it in performance I would have had a greater appreciation
of it. Nonetheless, the JACK Quartet obviously know their way
For anyone who heard them live at this Wigmore Hall concert,
this CD is the perfect memento. However, the attraction of the
particular sequence and the stunning performances captured in
lively and natural sound further make this disc highly recommendable
for anyone with an interest in modern chamber music. It whets
the appetite for more from the JACK Quartet.