String Quartet

  • Chamber Music by Eleanor Alberga

    Eleanor Alberga: Wild Blue Yonder
    Thomas Bowes, violin. Eleanor Alberga, piano.
    Richard Watkins, horn. Nicholas Daniel, oboe.
    Ensemble Arcadiana:
    Thomas Bowes and Oscar Perks, violin.
    Andres Kaaljuste, viola. Hannah Sloane, cello.
    Navona 6340
    Total Time:  49:31
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Eleanor Alberga is represented by 4 unique chamber works on this new collection from the UK-based, Jamaican-born composer.  Beginning in the 1970s, Alberga expanded beyond her solo piano career with composition after landing at the London Contemporary Dance Theater.  Since then she has composed numerous works for that ensemble in addition to concert pieces in all genres.  Two works for winds and string quartet are set apart by pieces for violin and piano.

    Her husband, violinist Thomas Bowes, is featured on two earlier works that bookend this new release and feature her on the piano as well.  (These were recorded live.) The first of these is No-Man's-Land Lullaby (1997) which is a fascinating work that hints at Brahms' "Lullaby" set against Alberga's own contemplation of war and heritage.  The album concludes with The Wild Blue Yonder (1995) which is a more modern style piece using sparse piano ideas and more atonal writing that creates a more interesting dramatic quality coupled with the slight bent pitches and glissandi in the solo instrument.  It becomes more agitated as it progresses making for a fine technical showpiece.

    Shining Gate of Morpheus (2012) is a work for horn and string quartet.  It is a somewhat episodic work that takes us on a journey through dream states.  The musical language is quite accessible and dramatically engaging with some stunning work for the trio itself and interesting horn writing that opens with a fanfare idea.  There are also some interesting timbral explorations that shift ideas from the horn and back into the string lines which makes for a compelling and dramatic work.  The other similar chamber piece here is for oboe and string quartet.  Composed in 2007 under a commission from the City of London Festival, Succubus Moon explores darker realms in 0ften more experimental textures and sounds.  The piece is no less dramatic and feels a bit more visceral in its exploration of dissonances than the previous works.  The oboe line can add an often more plaintive tone at times.  The textures here are a bit denser than in the previous works which makes for fine contrast.

    The album presents two sides of Alberga's musical style.  The works on the front end of the album are the more accessible musically and draw the listener slowly in to her sound world and compositional approaches.  The latter two pieces demonstrate her compositional skill in crafting dramatic music in more atonal realms.  Each has something unique to offer the listener interested in discovering a new voice.

  • Not Just Minimal Sounds of Ireland


    Dave Flynn: Irish Minimalism
    Breanndan Begley, voice. Mick O-Brien, uilleann pipes.
    Contempo Quartet; IMO Quartet
    First Hand Records 116
    Total Time:  70:24
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Irish composer and guitarist Dave Flynn (b. 1977) is featured on this new release of contemporary chamber music.  Flynn is perhaps most known for his work with the Irish Memory Orchestra, though his compositions have also garnered critical acclaim.

    The Contempo Quartet is featured in the two string quartets on the album.  The opening work, The Cranning (String Quartet No. 2; 2004-2005), introduces the listener to this unique approach that moves beyond traditional minimalist technique and might be best hears as a new post-minimalist approach that melds in folkish performance gestures.  One can hear this from the very first bars of the opening movement, “Slip”, with its interesting, syncopated rhythms.  The repetition of these ideas connects a bit to that larger aesthetic, but it is in the energy of the music that the music brings an extra dramatic push.  There are open string-like sounds that also take cues from Irish fiddle playing, that style moves through the entire quartet with some often fascinating textural effects.  Within the musical material is also references to folk dance (Donegal) music which adds another unique flavor and continues to create an almost semi-improvisational feel. Flynn writes out these gestures which circle round on themselves in rather tonal writing.    The Keening (String Quartet No. 3; 2007) explores the more somber side of Flynn’s material with three movements that evoke ancient funeral singing.  The effect is equally stunning as the energy of the other works calms down allowing us to hear the more careful shifting of motives and harmony.  That said, this becomes a quite intense work whose final movement almost seems to have a Banshee-like howling motive as things further dissolve to chilling effect.  This particular work gets at the more intimate stylistic approach in Flynn’s style more so than those earlier pieces for a quite intense experience.

    The IMO quartet is joined by Mick O’Brien, a performer on uilleann pipes, first in a quintet, The Cutting (Quintet No. 1; 2008/2020).  The addition of the folk instrument into the string quarte texture adds a color that makes this quite Irish indeed.  It is helped by the addition of a sense of reels and a jig-like faster tempo.  One would be sure that we are hearing some long-lost folk tune.  The slides that make up the lyrical moments also take their inspiration from Irish fiddle practice.  The album closes with Stories from the Old World (2008) which now adds vocal text (as told by Peig Sayers, 1873-1958) that feature both spoken and sung texts, performed by Breanndan Begley, and uillean pipes to the string quartet sound.  The texts are in Kerry Gaelic dialect (translations are provided) which brings a sort of hybrid art song and folkish quality to the music.  It is a rather engrossing work that has the most filmic dramatic narrative flow.

    Irish Minimalism is an interesting, striking, and quite engaging collection of chamber music that simply does not sound like classical string quartet music.  This is due in part to Flynn’s focus on Irish folk music that is quite well-blended into the compositions.  The syncopated material brings this out while the melodic gestures have a semi-improvisational folkish quality.  Against this is the minimalist/post-minimalist application of repetition and subtle changes that are part of that aesthetic compositional approach.  In a way, these pieces return us full circle to the roots of what inspired that movement back in the 1960s and 1970s.  The music should appeal to both fans of Irish music as well as classical chamber music.  Those who have hears some of the Kronos Quartet albums, or are familiar with the film work of Clint Mansell will find a distant spirit in these pieces.

    The recording is also quite good and performances are equally excellent and committed.  It appears that these are recordings from about a decade ago.  The sound quality images the ensemble well moving through both channels and with the pipes and voice have a nice balance against that smaller ensemble.  The package comes with a nice booklet discussing the music and performers as well as including full texts and translations.  All of this is a the digipak.  Highly recommended.