One of the finest I have heard
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Quartet Choreography: The Soundtrack Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914) [7:58] Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
String Quartet (1964) [26:51] György LIGETI (1923-2006)
String Quartet No. 2 (1968) [21:22] Michael FINNISSY (b. 1946)
String Quartet No. 2 (2006-7) [19:17]
Kreutzer Quartet (Peter Sheppard Skćrved, Mihailo Trandafilovski (violins), Morgan Goff (viola), Neil Heyde (cello))
rec. 8 October 2007 (Stravinsky and Lutosławski), 26 October 2008 (Ligeti and Finnissy), The Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London MÉTIER MSVCD92105 [72:34]
This recording arose from an exercise in exploring the physical and visual aspects of making music as a quartet. This is an aspect of music-making which is important to both players and audiences but which is often overlooked. Of course we can all enjoy the kind of virtuosity which revels in technical display, and at a more serious level we can appreciate that technical difficulty can be an integral part of the fabric of music, as for example in Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge for string quartet or his Hammerklavier piano sonata. The Kreutzer Quartet have here chosen works which make unusual demands in this regard, and recorded their performances on a DVD. To issue and to review them in an audio-only format may therefore seem perverse, but in doing so they are inviting judgement on the traditional criteria for performances, to answer the anticipated question: ‘Yes, very interesting, but how good are the performances?’
We begin with Stravinsky’s Three pieces. These are like shavings from the composer’s workshop, very short but highly characteristic. He later gave them titles: Dance, Eccentric and Canticle, which summarise their character as successively popular, fantastic and liturgical. He later orchestrated them as the first three of the Four Studies for Orchestra and also reused their themes in other works. The particular challenge here is that Stravinsky specified fingerings, worked out with the Flonzaley Quartet, which, as the sleevenote says, “are exceptionally difficult and likely to produce a result that is audibly ‘imperfect’”. Nevertheless, it is easy for another player to tell simply by listening if “safer” fingerings have been taken” which is apparently what usually happens. So the imperfections are composed into the work. If I then go on to say that I didn’t notice them in this performance, I am not sure if that is a good thing or not!
The other three works are much more recent, though two of them have established themselves as classics. Lutosławski’s quartet is one of the works in which he introduced chance elements into performance, in what he called controlled aleatoricism. He originally wanted to present the work to the players as four separate parts without a score, because he wanted them to play their parts completely independently, without reference to one another except when required to do so. He later relented and allowed his wife to make a score in which the different sections, called mobiles, are isolated in separate boxes. He gave the players instructions on how to move from one mobile to another, which included signalling to other players. You can read about the technique in more detail here. The work itself is made up of an introductory and a main movement, a structure Lutosławski used in many of his works. The introductory movement opens with the violin; before a series of octave C naturals on the cello come to dominate the movement but nothing is resolved. The main movement builds towards an appassionato section before dying away in high notes. This may sound daunting but in fact the work is beautiful and approachable, as are his other works.
Ligeti wrote two quartets, of which this in particular has won a high reputation. It is in five movements, like several works by his compatriot Bartόk. They draw on the same material but in very contrasted ways. In the first movement there are abrupt changes of speed, in the second the same material is treated slowly, in the third it is broken up, the fourth is very compressed and harsh, while the fifth spreads itself out. Actually, in its strong contrasts between movements the work reminds me not so much of Bartόk as of Berg’s Lyric Suite. The idiom is expressionistic but, except in the fourth movement, which is very short, it is not harsh. The visual aspects include an unnecessary page turn written into the score and several complete silences. The work is strongly contrasted and absorbing.
Michael Finnissy’s second string quartet follows Lutosławski in also being written as a set of parts which exist in free relation to one another. He also claims the influence of Haydn, specifically his Lark quartet (Op. 64 No. 5) and you can hear snatches of this. Despite his fearsome reputation as an arch-modernist, this work is not particularly dissonant, and passages of it, such as an Adagio about eleven minutes in, are quite beautiful. However, despite listening to it three times I am unable to make anything of it as a whole. I am sorry about this, as the programme is constructed to lead up to the Finnissy through suitable earlier works.
The performances by the Kreutzer quartet are assured; and, to answer my initial question, they are very good. Moreover, the Finnissy was written for them: they are great champions of his music. The recordings are clean and clear and the sleeve-notes, by the cellist of the quartet, are helpful. There are numerous competitors for the other works, and the Kreutzers also made a previous recording of the Finnissy on an NMC disc coupled with his third quartet (NMCD180). However, this programme stands on its own even if you are not particularly interested in the visual aspects. If you are, the related DVD is still available from Métier Records (MSVDX101).