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Spektral Quartet
rec 17-18 October 2020, Sono Luminus Studio, Boyce, VA, USA
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92250 [28:25]

The Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir has built herself a fine and well-deserved reputation. Her music contains enough grit to sound contemporary whilst its cinematic qualities make it readily accessible to the novice listener. Much of her music to date has been for orchestra and I understand from the sleeve notes that this is her first foray into writing for string quartet.

In those sleeve notes, the Spektral Quartet's violist, Doyle Armbrust  writes of the inspiration for this work as coming from a time when “ducking your head under the covers was ample defence against the bogeyman.” Enigma occupies the “permeable border” between light and dark. He further comments that, with Covid, we have all spent most of the last year neither here nor there.

This is a piece that generates its tension by contrasting slow chordal passages, which in the liner notes one of the performers likens to a chorale, with more disparate agitated music that deploys a very wide range of techniques including tapping the body of the instrument, col legno bowing and even, by the sounds of it, blowing. These techniques are used to create what feel to me like the sounds of nature. One recurring passage had me thinking of the cries of sea gulls over the Icelandic coastline. These reasonably modernist techniques are, however, liable to disguise the fact that this is, in fact, a surprisingly traditional piece of music. The slow chordal passages have Thorvaldsdottir’s own unmistakable voice which seems almost a part of the landscape, but musically I kept being taken back to the late Shostakovich quartets.

As you can see from this description, I didn’t find the music particularly evocative of the ostensible theme suggested by the notes.

The middle section acts as a scherzo of sorts. The various pluckings assemble themselves into a rhythm. I think this section suffers from the same issue as the scherzo of Mahler’s 7th symphony in that it sounds like music that is meant to be disturbing but really isn’t. Compare this with music specifically designed to disturb such as the eighth section of Luigi Archetti’s piece Transient Places and hopefully you will hear what I mean. This notwithstanding, like the Mahler, it is enjoyable music which works itself up to a striking climax that for all the world sounds like a tree falling down. It is a very powerful moment before things subside to the mood of the opening of the whole work.

The third and final movement recapitulates a lot of the opening section before rising to what felt like rather ecstatic, hymn-like music which brings the whole piece to a satisfying ending before disappearing upwards into the ether.

Recording and performance are both keenly tuned into Thorvaldsdottir’s creative world. The ambience is deep enough to accommodate her gigantic landscapes.

Thorvaldsdottir’s admirers need not delay, as this represents a successful extension of her unique voice into this genre. For those unfamiliar with her work, I would imagine the orchestral music will give a more powerful impression of her direct, primal music. I would suggest that she is the kind of composer who could help the timid listener bridge the gap between Sibelius and contemporary music. That said, Enigma is a powerful and assured statement from a composer who clearly knows what she wants to say. I found what she has to say gripping and, at times, moving in its plain-spoken simplicity.

David McDade

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