A Handful of Exciting Modern String Quartets
For fans of the string quartet repertoire, the new Quadrants modern string quartet collection is heaven. With four ensembles playing five composers, all but one of them living, it’s an example of some of the most compelling recent composition and playing by a mix of inspired pickup groups and underrated, established quartets, extremely accessible yet state-of-the-art. It’s hard to believe that this is the only recording of Virgil Thomson’s String Quartet No. 1 currently in print, and the Boston Composers String Quartet has a ball with it. Having heard this in concert before but never on album, what’s most impressive is how almost completely through-composed it is, Thomson emptying out his songbag (or collection of pilfered themes: church music, hillbilly tunes and ragtime, among others). The quartet are at their best at the end of the second movement where the composer finally introduces some bracingly modernist tonalties amid his disarmingly simple riffs for a long-awaited, nebulously understated payoff, a device he employs to break up the shamelessly catchy neoromanticism of the third movement as well.
The album opens with the Boston String Quartet playing Marie Incontrera’s jaunty, dancing Limbic Breath, the cello kicking up its heels throughout much of this relatively brief song without words punctuated by a thoughtful lull or two before returning to a romp. It’s fun and it’s a hit.
The Moravian Philharmonic Chamber Players contribute a somewhat sternly polyrhythmic, Philip Glass-influenced take of Ulf Grahm’s hypnotic The Timeless Lines of Time, moving precisely to a competely unexpected, nebulously nocturnal passage that establishes a murky tension left to linger memorably the rest of the way.
The New England String Quartet play the rest of the album, beginning with Michael Cunningham’s String Quartet No. 5, which deftly blends neoromantic melodies, modernist harmonies and classical architecture. The first movement, titled Zestful, works a tense suspense versus relaxed cantabile; the second, Languid, is far less languid than brooding, with a vivid exchange between cello and viola; the third, Spirited employs a rather wry tension between pizzicato and a steady staccato, with a big bracing coda and a quirky final flourish.
Alan Beeler is represented by two works whose rigorously mathematical underpinning is belied by their emotional vividness. Quartet 2000 quickly establishes a sense of longing out of hypnotic astringencies, closing with an altered waltz that manages to be sweeping yet austere at once. By contrast, his String Quartet No. 2 is basically a fugue with variations. A lush circular motif in the first movement falls away to many plaintive solo cello parts in the second, a quite possibly satirical, bouncy waltz in the third and then a pensive spaciousness in the fourth. It’s an unusual and rousingly successful blend of the here-and-now and the antique.