The Bergamot Quartet In the Brink

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WIANCKO: Ode on a Broken Loom. LEÓN: Essencia. FARRIN: Undecim. FINCK: In the Brink* / Bergamot Quartet: Ledah Finck, Sarah Thomas, vln; Amy Tan, vla; Irène Han, cel; *Terry Sweeney, dm / New Focus Recordings FCR316

This is the debut recording of the all-woman Bergamot Quartet, a group dedicated to discovering and playing new music. Well, gee, there’s a novel concept in the classical world, even here in the 21st century, where 95% of string quartets have the bulk of their repertoire taken up by the old-timey pieces!

We start out with Paul Wiancko’s Ode on a Broken Loom, written in 2019 on a commission from the Eybler Quartet. It opens with fast-paced, polyphonic, bitonal music that introduces the piece to us. The development is interesting but, to my ears, a bit too long before moving on to the second theme, but it then gets more interesting, including a section in which Wiancko writes for the strings in such a way that they almost sound like a tape playing backwards; then, a bit later, a section where the quartet almost sounds like an organ or a hurdy-gurdy. Weird, but very interesting! The music accelerates near the end for the finish: exciting but, I thought, just a shade formulaic.

Next up is Tania León’s Essencia, written in 2009 on a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation. (Sometimes you really do wonder if modern-day composers write anything without grants or commissions. Hell, if Brahms, Mahler, Debussy or Stravinsky did that, we wouldn’t have had most of their music!) This one is highly rhythmic, using Latino music as an inspiration but, except for the rhythms, sounding much more bitonal and, at times, even atonal. The first movement is largely a moto perpetuo except for a slower, more relaxed section in the middle, and this is some of the most creative music presented here, with odd little note flurries scattered around and even a microtonal slide upward by the full quartet playing in unison. The second movement is much more rhythmically complex, often pitting two contrasting rhythms against one another with brief slower interludes of a more lyrical nature. Here, León, too, uses microtonal slides, but also contrasting rhythms, some of an asymmetrical nature, This is a VERY interesting piece. The third and last movement, using asymmetric rhythms at a faster pace, also takes the time to explore a lyrical theme here and here. I found this piece to be interesting but a bit too formulaic. It got stuck in ruts a bit too long here and there for me.

I found Undecim, written by Suzanne Farrin in 2006, to be a much more innovative work in every way. Here, Farrin juxtaposes contrasting, even conflicting, themes to create a fascinating mosaic that somehow jells together. Her lines notes discuss the fact that “Memories are partial, incomplete and fragmented,” but of course it is the music, its quality and its emotional and intellectual impact that counts, and I believe that she has written a truly interesting work that deserves more performances (and yes, even more recordings, good as this one is). I was caught up in the way she introduces and manipulates her themes and theme fragments, and I think you will be, too. Absolutely nothing in this piece is formulaic or predictable.

We end with In the Brink (2019) by the Bergamot Quartet’s lead violinist, Ledah Finck. This, too is a fascinating, multi-faceted work which includes some speak-singing by the quartet members to fragmented words (“where are we    are you?    Am     I     you    we   I’m terribly afraid of becoming lost”). The words, I thought, were superfluous and distracting to the music, which was far more interesting. The second movement, strangely enough, includes a drum solo, during which the quartet plays very little but shouts a lot. Oddly, the acoustic for this piece is entirely different from the rest of the album. The microphone placement is very close and the sound is rather boxy. Perhaps this was an artistic choice; I don’t know. The third movement consisted of sounds made, I think, by the quartet members pulling on the strings of their instruments before actually bowing them in rapid, overlapping figures. This then leads to fast, rising figures played by the two violins with drum and cymbal accompaniment until they disappear into the violin stratosphere; the last movement opens with viola and cello playing a more lyrical theme, but then devolves into an almost silent passage with a few “crinkly” sounds in it, followed in turn by a syncopated passage featuring bows being struck against the sides of their instruments, light snare drum, and handclapping. You certainly can’t say that they aren’t adventurous. They also sing about how they hold each other in the brink “of all our questions,” thus the title of this CD.

An interesting debut disc, then, with some very interesting pieces on it and a few not so interesting. But at least they’re not afraid to take chances!

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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