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Esa-Pekka SALONEN (b.1958)
Homunculus for String Quartet (2007) [13.54]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
String Quartet No. 1 ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’ (1953/54) [21.28]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
String Quartet No. 3 (1975) [25.47]
Kamus Quartet
rec. 2016, Church of St. Catherine, Karjaa, Finland
ALBA ABCD409 SACD [62.01]

This is a fascinating release on the Finnish label Alba, containing three works for string quartet by European composers, spanning a period of nearly fifty years from 1954. Performed by the Kamus Quartet, the release includes the world première recording of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Homunculus from which the album takes its name. It makes a pleasant change to hear more recently composed works rather than those from the established Austro/German Romantic repertoire.

Best known as a celebrated conductor of the international stage rather than a composer, Finnish-born Salonen wrote his Homunculus for string quartet in 2007. According to Salonen, the title Homunculus “refers to the arcane spermists’ theory, which held that the sperm was in fact a ‘little man’ (homunculus) that was placed inside a woman for growth into a child. This seemed to them to neatly explain many of the mysteries of conception.” Salonen’s intention was to write a small-scale work that would nonetheless comprise all the components of a fully-fledged string quartet. Salonen has identified four predominant characteristics in his score: Scherzo, Slow Movement, Main Movement and Chorale. Overall, the writing under the Kamus Quartet displays a disconcerting, rather anxious, quality, constantly moving forward. There are contrasting passages of comparative calm which provide welcome relief and a conclusion of a melancholic complexion.

Ligeti completed his First String Quartet in 1954, a couple of years prior to fleeing Hungary for Vienna. Here, Ligeti’s main influences are Bartók's Third and Fourth Quartets, prompting Hungarian composer György Kurtág to describe the score as “Bartók's Seventh String Quartet.” As Hungary at that time was subject to Soviet censorship, Ligeti consigned the quartet to the drawer until a more favourable political climate prevailed; the work finally receiving its premiere in Vienna in 1958. Strongly influenced by Bartók's repeated focus in his works of night and darkness, Ligeti entitled the work Métamorphoses nocturnes. Here, Ligeti, according to music writer Auli Särkiö, “takes up the age-old artistic theme of night as a reflection of the human mind.” Cast in a single continuous movement, the quartet is divided into 17 sections. The Kamus Quartet excels in this work of broad and frequently changing emotions, ranging most notably from meditative calm, to agitation and panic, to light hearted humour. The account of the First String Quartet, probably the best known and rightly so, is played by the Arditti String Quartet recorded in 1994 in the Henry Wood Hall, London, as part of the ‘György Ligeti Edition 1 – String Quartets & Duets’ on Sony. The Arditti String Quartet now has fierce competition from the Kamus Quartet.

Britten’s five movement Third String Quartet was the stricken composer’s swansong, written in 1975, close to the end of his life. The harrowing score, which at times seems to challenge the passage of time, was premièred by the Amadeus Quartet, at Snape Maltings, in December 1976, only fifteen days after the composer’s death; they had had the good fortune to rehearse the score with Britten at Aldeburgh some weeks earlier.

The composer Colin Matthews, who was then providing Britten with considerable help, told me that at the time of composing the score Britten could play the piano only with his left hand and needed his assistance to play through the sketches. The score’s pervading mood of austerity and desolation genuinely suggests that the rapidly deteriorating Britten was withdrawing into his own private world. To my ears, the music of Britten’s friend Shostakovich permeates the writing. In the opening movement entitled Duets, the work begins with a gently rocking sonata-like moderato. Tentative explorations become more confident and expressive. The prevailing mood has been described as evocative of the lapping waters of the Venice canals. The short second movement, Scherzo, is a striding, airy ostinato which becomes restlessness and unsettling in mood. The short central section contains a distinct yearning quality. Entitled “Solo”, the central movement has been described as a slow spiritual song of rare simplicity framing an outburst of birdsong. The playing creates an atmosphere and mood evoking a picture of a flat, cold landscape of total despair, most like Shostakovich in character. The fourth movement is another short Scherzo in the form of a Burlesque. The Kamus Quartet clearly understand the obsessive and frenetic character of the movement, that musicologist Peter Evans described as “a dance of death”. Subtitled La serenissima, composed during Britten’s last holiday in Venice, the protracted final movement recitative and passacaglia has a dark and unsettling nature that borders on the sinister. The recurrent theme in the passacaglia, with which the cello supports the music, derives partly from the sound of the Venice church bells that Britten so adored and could hear from his hotel balcony in the city. Easily identifiable here is Britten’s use of the most recognisable motif, Aschenbach’s ‘I love you’, from his opera ‘Death in Venice’, which is heard repeatedly in various distorted forms and easily lodges easily in the memory. The Kamus Quartet play with an ethereal beauty that draws the listener into a trance-like state; the music seems to recognise Britten’s private and painful recognition that his life was slowly slipping away. Be warned: the desolate and unsettling music of the Third String Quartet can leave one exhausted. Of competing recordings of the score, I greatly admire the affecting 2003 Potton Hall, Suffolk account by the Belcea Quartet, part of the Britten works for string quartet on EMI Classics. That is still my first choice, but this account from the Kamus Quartet merits keen attention.

Recorded at the Church of St. Catherine, Karjaa, this SACD, played on my standard player, has sound quality hard to fault, being vividly clear and especially well balanced. The booklet essay written by Auli Särkiö is both interesting and readable. The timing is only 62 minutes, so another work could have been accommodated on the album.

‘Homunculus’ is a strikingly performed and recorded album, worthy of significant praise.

Michael Cookson



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