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Markus REUTER (b. 1972)
String Quartet No. 1 ‘Heartland’
Matangi Quartet
rec. 2018, Kirche Zum Heiligen Kreuz, Berlin

Look up Markus Reuter online, and you will find his name as much part of pop music culture and ‘touch guitar’ playing as it is part of contemporary classical music. Published as usual with a glossy and lavish booklet filled with anecdote, background information and informative texts, this venture into chamber music in its purest form actually takes us back to Reuter’s earlier days as a composer: “going back further and further into realising musical ideas I’ve treasured from when I first started thinking about composing, which to me means finding new ordering principles for pitches.”

String Quartet No. 1 ‘Heartland’ approaches this genre from an entirely new angle. The promo text for this release sums this up well: “…the tracks were built using a pool of self-referential musical fractals. By combining them with into deeply layered structures, every single bar of music is related to what precedes and follows it, even though there is not a single mechanical repetition in these pieces.”

I have a healthy suspicion of music based on algorithms and other seemingly extra-musical devices, but I also think it’s probably best to approach this work without too much focus on technique in this regard. As Frank Schätzing writes in an opening rumination for the booklet, this music’s “truthfulness lies precisely in being true in many different ways”, in other words, entirely personal to the listener and different to his own poetic interpretations. This, to me, is music which has both a chill intellectual rigour and a surprising expressive strength. The collaboration between intellectual concept and living, breathing musicians in this case has paid off – not always equally successfully, but on the whole to striking effect.

The Matangi Quartet plays superbly under the spotlight of a remarkably detailed and grippingly atmospheric recording. The opening movement Boon is encouragingly energetic, with tight rhythmic ostinati driving forward and interspersed with pizzicato punctuations over enigmatic melodic shapes that are passed between the players. X has taken a shine to you retreats into introspection, a quasi-abstract Morton Feldman or late John Cage-like space which creates its expressive atmosphere via the translucent mid to higher register of the quartet. Netcong 63 is more lyrical, the second violin and cello soaring between measured repeated notes that make this piece like a recollection of Boon. This also sets us up nicely for Dwell on a Star, the cadence-like shapes emerging-from-silence of which distantly recall Pärt in the opening minute or so. This is the only movement here which divides into recognisable sections, having the effect of a set of variations. An irregular 7/8 rhythm is set up in one of these, a ‘dance’ that contrasts with the chorale-like feel elsewhere. The Tragic Universe has a minor-key feel and opens with a suitably melancholy emphasis, but rhythmic detail and “opposing constellations of intervallic relationships” turn this into something with plenty of inner life. Zauberberg is this string quartet’s ‘centrepiece’, using a complex ‘magic square’ as the basis for its musical material, and in which “a myriad kaleidoscopic melodic, harmonic and rhythmic interactions take place.” As there is a symbiosis between abstract musical concept and its performance here, there is equally a selective process at work that transforms all of these mathematical frameworks into music that has its own identity and fascination. There is an ongoing rhythm or tempo over which the notes step lightly, creating both a texture and a musical argument, the secrets of which you can discover over a multitude of hearings. Like Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge you may end up loving or hating this, but its presence is undeniable. Heartland Bleeds “is like a spectrally-arranged single note melody”, but one with a constant “rhythmic restlessness”, and in which ever-changing bowing combinations alter the colours to create another kaleidoscopic effect. The Magic Universe is described by the composer as “a sad goodbye, and a thank-you for your time.” This is a slow eulogy with strange harmonic stresses and quasi-resolutions, and to my ears one of the best movements of the entire quartet.

Markus Reuter’s String Quartet No. 1 ‘Heartland’ deserves to be heard, and with this quality release at the very least you know you’ll be getting a demonstration quality recording and an object to treasure, so good are the production standards. This is a work you’ll need to immerse yourself in and tackle with an open mind, but the rewards are equal to the investment.

Dominy Clements

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