A Clutch of Modern String Music from Munich

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MUSIC FOR STRINGS / RIHM: Quartettstudie / Quatuor Ébène / J.M. STAUD: Towards a Brighter Hue / Korbinian Altenberger, vln / SHCHEDRIN: Lyrische Szenen für Streichquartett / Apollon Musagète Quartett / SAWER: Parthenope für viola solo / Antoine Tamestit, vla / TÜÜR: Lost Prayers, String Quartet no. 2 / Armida Quartet / SALONEN: knock, breathe, shine / Tristan Cornut, cello / N. BRASS: etchings for String Quartet / Quartet Amabile / BR Klassik 900715

This is an interesting album in that it is a release on a major label that follows the pattern of many “vanity classical” labels, where the artist or the composer pays for the recording of their work and a compilation CD is quickly assembled and released. Of course there’s nothing wrong with such an arrangement, and many a fine composer, from Gernot Wolfgang to John Carollo, has benefited from such arrangements. The question, however, when one approaches such as CD is, how good are all the other composers presented therein?

In this case we have three well-known names presented here: Wolfgang Rihm, Rodion Shchedrin (his name spelled Germanically here as Schtschedrin) and Esa-Pekka Salonen, although I’m sure the latter is better known as a conductor than as a composer. What I found interesting about this release is that all of the works presented here are for solo string instruments (three of them) or string quartet (four of them), yet each of the latter uses an entirely different quartet!

The liner notes explain the genesis of this CD, which is the annual International Music Competition of the ARD in Munich. In addition to numerous pieces that can be selected from the old-timey stuff, at least one modern work has been compulsory since 2002. The rules stipulate that it must be between 8 and 12 minutes long, “and so demanding from a technical and musical point of view that it pulls the diverse abilities of a participant to the test.” To what end they do this I’m not sure, since having a great technique is not a guarantee of musical sensitivity. In addition, there are so many solo string players, duos, trios and quartets out there all butting heads and vying for gigs that many of them end up in orchestras anyway, where they play the Standard Repertoire 90% of the time, but those are the rules.

Rihm’s Quartettstudie was written during the period when he was composing his 11th, 12thand 13th string quartets. The music is incredibly dense but also tremendously energetic and exciting; there are moments of tonality, but even these use quite edgy underlying chord positions. The rhythmic episodes, which drive the quartet in mood, break off and collapse into the lyrical episodes. The Quatuor Ébène plays it with a bright, edgy tone and tremendous drive. The technical complexity of some of the more violent passages are evidently what pleased the sadistic judges of this competition. Happily, it’s also an interesting, quality piece of music.

Johannes Maria Staud’s Towards a Brighter Hue was composed during the summer and early fall of 2004. Interestingly, it sounds remarkably similar in shape, contour and mood to Rihm’s quartet. I wonder if they know each other, or if Staud at least looked at Rihm’s score? It uses the same pattern of alternating edgy, atonal loud passages with quiet, reflective and more tonal interludes. Violinist Korbinian Altenberger clearly has the chops to play it, but also a musical sensibility that makes the music come alive.

By comparison to these first two pieces, Shchedrin’s Lyric Scene for String Quartet has far more legato in it and a melodic line that one can follow with one’s ear if not exactly hum. In short, it is closer in style to the quartets of Shostakovich or Weinberg. I felt this was clearly one of the finest pieces on the CD, and one that may be destined for more actual concert performances than the first two, by nature of its greater appeal and accessibility. The Apollon Musagète Quartett, apparently named after Stravinsky’s work, gives their all and turns out a fine performance. I was particularly impressed by the change of mood at the five-minute mark, when the quartet suddenly starts playing loud, edgy downbow figures that continue to drive the music in the ensuing sections. But then again, I’ve always been fond of Shchedrin as a composer, even way back in the day when he was writing music for his wife, ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. His sense of structure is never very far from the surface, and one can mentally picture the way he develops his themes.

Much to his credit, David Sawer is very much his own man in his Parthenope for Viola Solo, writing lyrical, tonal passages overlaid on modern ones that sound modal but not atonal. The angular movement of his top line becomes a sort of mantra for this piece, suggesting itself to the listener even in those moments when it is not actually present. An edgier pizzicato passage emerges at the four-minute mark, during which the soloist is required to play short bowed figures intermittently. These then become the dominant motif, with the pizzicato tossed in for color. Throughout the piece, violist Antoine Tamestit maintains a bright rather than a dark timbre on his instrument, which helps buoy the music and keep it from sonding a bit too cello-ish. Even in the lower passages of this piece, Tamestit manages to keep his tone light and bright.

Next we get Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Lost Prayers for string quartet. The notes describe this music as “quite melodic;” I felt it was anything but. On the contrary, the few lyrical gestures are just that, gestures rather than clear, definable melodies. The overall impression I had of the music was of a seriesof disjointed gestures trying to make a whole statement but not quite succeeding. This is not to say that it isn’t an interesting piece, only that there isn’t much truth here in the advertising.

I did, however, really enjoy Salonen’s knock, breathe, shine for solo cello. I had to check my player to make sure this was what was playing, because it really sounded like at least two instruments throughout, so technically involved is it. Divided into three sections, the first is the hyper-active pizzicato just mentioned; the second, more lyrical but still unsettled tonally, exploits the performer’s emotional sensitivity, while the third is quite varied, using multiple stops. But the important thing is that the music is interesting and creative; it’s not just virtuoso technique for its own sake. Young Tristan Cornut plays with remarkable energy and flawless technique.

We end with Nikolaus Brass’s etchings for String Quartet. Here, the virtuosic meets a wild imagination; I was fascinated by the way in which Brass interwove the difficult technical passages into an interesting and rather wild piece.

One of the interesting aspects of this album is that these are all live performances given in the course of the International Music Competition described above. The years given range from 2004 (Rihm and Sawer) and 2016 (Brass), and this adds to the edge-of-your-seat excitement of them. Overall, then, a really fine disc of unusual works, superbly played and recorded.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge

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