György LIGETI (1923-2006)
String Quartet No. 2 (1968) [20:38]
Matthias PINTSCHER (b. 1971)
Study IV for Treatise on the Veil (2009) [17:09]
John CAGE (1912-1992)
String Quartet in Four Parts (1949-50) [18:12]
Iannis XENAKIS (1922-2001)
Tetras (1983) [16:18]
JACK Quartet (Christopher Otto (violin); Ari Streisfeld (violin); John Pickford
Richards (viola); Kevin McFarland (cello))
rec. live, Wigmore Hall, London, 30 July 2011. DDD

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 around it.
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.
Leslie Wright 

A real showcase for the talents of the JACK Quartet.