Alberga’s Fascinating String Quartets

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WP 2019 - 2ALBERGA: String Quartets Nos. 1,* 2, 3 / Ensemble Arcadiana: Thomas Bowes, *Jacqueline Shave, Oscar Perks, vln; Andres Kaljuste, vla; Jonathan Swensen, cel / Navona NV6234

This album presents the string quartets of Eleanor Alberga, whose music—though thoroughly classical in structure and concept—clearly exhibits the strong influence of jazz it its rhythms. She has written music for the BBC Proms and the Royal Opera, and of course I’ve not heard any of this, but what I hear in this album is simply extraordinary.

In the liner notes, Alberga attributes her inspiration in the first quartet, and to a lesser extent the second, to a lecture on physics she attended in which she learned that our bodies are pretty much made up of “stardust” (or, as the late astrologist Carl Sagan put it back in the late 1970s, “star stuff”). The continually strong rhythms, including backbeats, may have much to do with her origins in Jamaica, where she was born in 1949, but as we all know, the native music of the Caribbean is close to jazz and was an early influence on it. The rhythmic element is less evident in the slow movement, titled “Espressivo with Wonder and Yearning,” but the music is no less imaginative. Alberga has a real gift for creating melodic lines, and structures, that continually develop and are attractive without resorting to pop music-like tunes. She quite evidently enjoys what she does, and puts a great deal of herself into everything she writes. This is quite different from the majority of modern composers, who are more academic “thinkers” that “feelers.” The third movement, “Frantically Driven Yet Playful,” is indeed frantic, a sort of bitonal 6/8 jig danced on one leg, so to speak.

The second quartet, though admittedly cut from the same cloth, uses even more syncopated figures with the rhythms sometimes running backwards against themselves. In the first section (movement), we again hear a 6/8 rhythm, but now it is more of a neo-classic motor rhythm and not a jig. Alberga cleverly avoids monotony by alternating this strong beat with longer-held notes while developing her theme. She continues to alternate lyrical sections with dramatic ones, always moving the music towards unexpected yet always logical shifts of mood.

By her own admission, the third quartet is cut from a different cloth: it is “more reflective and inward-looking.” Although it is no less rhythmic in places and just as surprising in its twists and turns of phrase, it is more lyrical overall, more a reflection of the artist’s own inner being, such as the sudden, unexpected shift down to a pianissimo whisper at the end of the first movement. The second movement consists of several “slithering” figures for the strings, which become the basis of the development (begun by the cello), again alternating with sharp rhythmic accents, while the third (“Adagio”) begins with floating figures and small rhythmic gestures to fill the texture, yet again with a surprising quick-tempo outburst.

Another surprise comes in the form of the quirky rhythms used in the final “Allegro,” based to some extent on neo-Classical music but with an impetus all her own, such as the one that suddenly enters the picture at around the 2:40 mark. It is dance-like but in a quirky way, and the funny little gestures she inserts adds to its piquancy. So, too, does the abrupt ending.

These are simply wonderful pieces, brilliantly conceived and performed to perfection by Ensemble Arcadiana.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Alberga’s Fascinating String Quartets

  1. Hi Lynn – Thomas Bowes here; I played the first violin parts on this album. Thank you so much for ‘getting’ Eleanor’s music! I have flu for years that her music is a bit like an unexploded bomb waiting to go off in the music world. Interestingly Eleanor would say she has no real understanding of Jazz, so she’s very flattered to read that you sense she has it in her. But you make the link to Jamaican folk music and other idioms all of which she grew up with alongside Bartok, Stravinsky et al.
    May I respectfully point out that you mis-spelt our esteemed violist Andres Kaljuste.Perhaps you could correct? Thanks again. Tom

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    • Hi Thomas, so glad you liked the review. Sorry about the misspelling of Kaljuste’s name; the small print in the notes was hard to read. I’ve corrected it in the review. As for the jazz feeling, that definitely came through in the performance. Perhaps you and your quartet-mates felt the music with a bit of a jazz swagger, but it’s definitely there to be heard.

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