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Ernst Helmuth FLAMMER (b. 1949) Voyage éternel de l’oiseau de feu – Eternal Journey of the Firebird (String Quartet No. 4) (1996/1997) [57:18] Abschiede – Farewells (String Quartet No. 5) (2002) [17:33]
Jade Quartett (Hanlin (Annelie) Lang, violin, Hyun Ji (Lisa) You, violin, Igor Michalski, viola, Shih Yu (Gina) You, cello)
rec. Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, SWR Baden-Baden, Germany, May 2016 NEOS 11618 SACD [74:53]
Even for a diehard fan of string quartets like me, the two works presented here form a significant challenge. The German composer Ernst Helmuth Flammer eschews the traditional concept of a string quartet, opting instead for multi-movement and multi-faceted ideal instead.
Ernst Helmuth Flammer, born in Heilbronn, originally studied maths and physics, before changing his area of study to music in 1975. He studied Counterpoint and theory with Peter Förtig, and composition with Klaus Huber and Brian Fernyhough at Freiburg. This is the third disc of his music released by the Munich-based label NEOS.
The disc opens with the fifty-seven-minute long Fourth String Quartet. It is divided into eighteen short sections, which can themselves be divided into movements. The music is difficult, as it forgoes traditional melodic structures for a more intense rhythmic integrity. Short, almost mathematical phrases rather than recognisable tunes, which are not everyone’s cup of tea. Even so, the progression of notes and rhythms make, if the listener is open to such music, an almost mesmeric work.
The Fifth Quartet of some five years later follows the model of the Fourth. It is a shorter work, only seven sections, and lasts less than a third of the length of its predecessor. This makes it a bit more approachable than the Fourth, as does the more identifiable note progression that Flammer employs here. As the title of the work suggests, this is about farewells. A poem printed in the booklet repeatedly refers to Anton Webern: “Farewells for Anton Webern”, “A tribute to Anton Webern”, “Farewells for the Anton Webern Quartet”. But Flammer’s music is no mere slavish homage to Webern. Rather—like Friedrich Cerha, whose string quartets have been recorded on NEOS 11217—he offers a development of Webern’s musical ideal into something new.
The playing of the Jade Quartett is excellent. This is much-nuanced music. You have the feeling that they get everything that they possibly can out of it. The sound from the hybrid Super Audio CD is helpful, as every note rings true. I found the booklet essay, by Flammer himself, a little too in-depth and technical, but helpful in his descriptions of the works.