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Péter EÖTVÖS (b. 1944)
The Sirens Cycle (2015/2016) [36.33]
Korrespondenz (1992) Szenen für Streichquartett [15:03]
Calder Quartet: Benjamin Jacobson, violin; Andrew Bulbrook, violin; Jonathan Moerschel, viola; Eric Byers, cello
Audrey Luna (soprano)
rec. 2016, IRCAM, Paris France DDD

Péter Eötvös was born in 1944 in Transylvania, Hungary. He divides his time between conducting, composing and teaching. Between 1979 and 1991 he directed the Ensemble Intercontemporain, for instance. All his work reflects and underpins an avowedly positive commitment to new music, new techniques and - to some extent - new musical norms. Eötvös’ combination of voice and conventional string quartet in the longer piece on this exciting CD from BMC works seamlessly and produces a work of conviction, which both stimulates and satisfies. The Sirens Cycle, which dates from 2015/2016, easily holds your attention for well over half an hour despite - if you read the accompanying booklet - being conceived in what to some may seem a very cerebral fashion. In reality, both Eötvös and his music are full of vibrancy and impact born of spontaneity, which the Calder Quartet (founded in 1998 at the University of Southern California and taking its name from American sculptor Alexander Calder) bring out at every turn.

It’s important to understand how and why Eötvös approaches text musically: for him there is a much closer partnership than is the case when ‘setting’ verse, for example. He looks back to the premise from which, say plainchant and early choral polyphony developed. He relishes the concrete and relatively unambiguous meanings, allusions, associations on which text works. He uses music specifically to depict, to carry meaning, to narrate and to recite and declaim textual material. The Sirens Cycle (which the Calders commissioned after incorporating Korrespondenz into their repertoire) originates unambiguously in Kafka’s short story analog of the episode in Book XII of the Odyssey in which the hero is tested by the sirens. That episode in Homer concerns silence and seductive noise; but these (perhaps apparent opposites) are turned on their head by Kafka and implicitly manipulated by Joyce.

Eötvös also used Homer himself and Joyce in the piece: the ten movements of The Sirens Cycle bear subtitles corresponding to the respective authors, Joyce for the first seven, Homer for 9, Kafka for 10, with 8 an interlude. So the sung texts are in (Joyce’s peppery, extravagant, ‘extended’) English, ancient Greek and German. Soprano Audrey Luna, who has a strong operatic repertoire, is superb in all these movements, articulating every word and line in the most musical of ways. No undue rhetoric; yet no casual or laboured delivery.

Similarly, the Calder Quartet employs a significant variety of string techniques and many are harnessed to one or more textual inspiration. This is never forced or mechanical either. Indeed, the playing of violinists Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook, violist Jonathan Moerschel and cellist Eric Byers is superb. It is idiomatic, tempered yet full of vigour and understanding for the works of which their strengths and specific musical skills are so clearly an integral part. What’s more, they amply hold together the varying styles and musical moods which the ten separate sections of the cycle contain.

Korrespondenz is about half Sirens’ length and is in three ‘scenes’ for the Calders alone. It too is inspired by text, although we hear none: that is the written correspondence between Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart in 1778, the year when the younger composer’s mother died while he was in Paris, as Leopold attempted to manage and direct his son’s performances, appearances and progress from Salzburg. It’s a much earlier work (1992) and on first hearing seems more fragmented and angular. Long aggressive pizzicato passages in the third ’Scene’ [tr.13], for instance, suggest atrophy if not outright dissolution.

This may in part be due to the fact that Eötvös actually assigns an interval to each vowel in the text, and a four-note chord (consisting of two pairs of intervals) to each letter. With much double-stopping this is obviously very demanding. You wouldn’t know that, though, from the accomplished playing of the Calders. They are more concerned with the whole than with exposing technicalities - as they should be.

As with the third string Quartet of Britten (with whose sound world and idiom Eötvös really has little in common), decay also does imply certainty, a (perhaps previous) existence which won’t be crushed. The thrust, though, is definitely towards resistance and a tentative acknowledgement that the world and life leave you little or nothing to take for granted.

The acoustic of the IRCAM Studio(s) is dry but plush and responsive … ideal, really for music that demands our close attention at all moments. Yet it is as rich in textures and contrasts as are The Sirens Cycle and Korrespondenz themselves. Miking is forward and close, and succeeds very well in picking up each instrument, and the voice. The stylish and elegantly understated booklet has a wealth of information on composer, players and the music with full texts in the originals, and English translation. The music presented here on this world premičre recording of The Sirens Cycle (there is an earlier version of Korrespondenz from 2003 of what appears to be a reduction as no (other) performer is indicated on BMC 85… it would also seem hard to source) has found expert and convincing performers. Eötvös’ world is a special and compelling one; no admirer of his world and work should hesitate here. Indeed, anyone interested in contemporary string and string quartet writing will find it a fulfilling and memorable 50+ minutes’ worth of intimate yet confident and direct music making.

Mark Sealey

Previous review: Richard Hanlon


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