Around the world in 80 minutes! Here’s music influenced
by the folk traditions of Peru, Spain, Iran and Uzbekistan, plus a piece
written in Australia and one that contains tributes to Ottoman janissaries
and the French baroque. You’ve probably never heard any of this: it
all comes from the last 35 years. These five composers all have superb
voices: they neither alienate nor condescend to the listener. The Sol
String Quartet is an energetic and powerful ensemble. All in all, I
have no choice but to consider this a potential Recording of the
. If you usually shy from “adventurous” repertoire, stop acting
that way and listen to this. Everything here is fantastic.
The most famous composer on the album is Lou Harrison
, an American eccentric who looked like Santa Claus
, studied with John Cage and was fascinated by the folk music of Java. His String Quartet Set
bears a European stamp, though, with one movement beautifully developing a medieval German chant, another a direct homage to “the French Baroque,” and the finale in imitation of Turkish military bands. There’s also a “Plaint” which the composer wittily summarizes: “We all complain, at least a little.”
Gabriela Lena Frank
is a major American voice in music, and I mean American in the broadest sense. Her mother is Peruvian and Chinese and her father a Lithuanian Jew. Frank herself was born and is based in California, and a formative experience in her life is her travel through South America “studying the music, poetry, mythology and legends (leyendas
is the name of her string quartet here, which episodically conjures up images of panpipes, gallant serenades, the crying women hired to mourn at funerals, high mountain pathways, and in the thrilling finale “a storm of guitars”. This is a superb introduction to Frank’s art, and one of my favorite pieces from her so far.
’s Spanish Garland
sets twelve folk melodies very simply, but not simplistically. Each tune, most of them harmonically quite surprising, leaps outside our cliché ideas of “Spanish” music. They are set the way you might hear them from an authentic folk band, with all the implied roughness, interplay between soloists and complexity. To me a lot of it sounds Turkish or Moorish, although the final episode, which comes across as sounds downright Celtic, is obviously from Galicia, where I heard bagpipes playing on a walk one day.
is a superb piece in Persian style for string quartet — I flatter myself that I know more about Arabic and Middle Eastern music than the average listener, since half my family is Turkish and my great-grandmother was a celebrated oud
teacher. This really does sound like traditional music set with excellent craftsmanship for western instruments. The performers face, by the way, pretty intimidating challenges tuning their instruments to mid-eastern scales. Vali apparently sends ensembles a disc of instructions, here very well-heeded.
The encore is Fast Blue Village No. 2
, by the Uzbek-Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin
. There’s a strong influence of western minimalism here; it’s like the travel diary of John Adams, or Philip Glass if he’s had some caffeine. By this point I was completely hooked.
This disc offers superb sound, truly state-of-the-art, comprehensive and very handy booklet notes and an exceptionally adventurous program. It’s outstanding music, none of it hard to penetrate but none of it cheesy or pandering. All of it is crafted with great skill. The string quartet’s performances grow only more astonishing as the CD goes along. If anybody anywhere is going to release a better, more fascinating album than this in 2013, I can’t wait to hear it.
By the way: In case someone from the Del Sol Quartet reads this: track down Slawomir Czarnecki’s String Quartet No. 2, pronto. You’ll love playing it. For everyone else: find the Opium Quartet recording; you’ll love listening to it.