String Quartet

  • Apollo Earthiness


    Within Earth
    Apollo Chamber Players
    Van-Anh Vo, dan bau.
    Matthew Carrington, viola.
    WindSync, members of KINETIC and Loop38/Jerry Hou
    Navona Records 6038
    Total Time:  59:27
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    Apollo Chamber Players returns with this new collection of four contemporary works for chamber ensemble.  Their programs tend to incorporate music from a variety of cultural traditions with a focus this time on Asian culture for the second part of this full program.  Three of the works are from their 20x2020 series.

    First up is a new quartet by Leo Brouwer.  Written as part of the Apollo Group’s 20x2020 commission series (the fifteenth commission), his String Quartet No. 6 (2018) (Nostalgia de las Montanas) is admittedly a more abstract integration of the composer’s references to Brazilian music and landscapes.  The “Introduction” presents a rather dizzying array of motives and intense harmonies that break out into longer thematic statements.  The rhythms here have their roots in Afro-Cuban music but the asymmetrical patterns now are a tighter, intricate component in an almost Bartokian frenzy as we move into the “Preambulo” section.  Samba and jongo gestures are also embedded in the music which is balanced by ideas that appear in the central movement and the final “Sonata” movement.  Of Brouwer’s output, this quartet feels more intimate, and personal, but also more abstract and cerebral than some of his more familiar earlier pieces.  It is the forward motion and rhythmic vitality though that really makes this an intriguing opening work for the album.

    Chris Walczak’s Four Dreams (2016) is a three movement string quartet that explores the Australian Aboriginal concept of Dreamtime.  Walczak uses aspects of the overtone series to frame each movement starting from a fundamental tone that then expands outward into the evocative music for each “dream”.  Each movement undergoes interesting tonal transformation as it grows into often intensely rhythmical spurts of sound.  There are some really gorgeous lyrical lines that provide a nice contrast to the more visceral rhythmic attacks that scurry about the music.  The interaction between the voices is also something to pay additional attention to as motives are tossed about to allow each a unique perspective on the material.  What is most striking is the unity of tone created by each of the players here.  As ideas are handed off from one instrument to the next, there is an excellent matching of tone quality and attack that adds to the excitement and committed performance quality.

    The last two works on the album work to expand our concepts of the quartet.  First is a piece by Vietnamese compose Vu Nhat Tan, one of two works that also feature performer Van-Anh Vo on the dan bau who further collaborated on the composition of this piece.  This is a traditional Vietnamese string instrument that is essentially a monochord zither.  It certainly adds a fascinating new color to the texture of the traditional string quartet.  In the 18-minute work May (Cloud) (2018), the city of Hanoi is evoked through a series of more traditional-sounding melodies set against more astringent sounds and harmonies.  The music is a melding of two types of Vietnamese musical traditions making for a rather fascinating journey that blends Asian and Western musical aesthetics stretching our musical capacity.

    Finally, the album closes with a larger-scale chamber piece, Within Earth, Wood Grows (2010).  Alexandra Du Bois’ work is an apt pairing as it also explores aspects of the I-Ching and was commissioned for the 1000th anniversary of Hanoi’s founding.  The year also marked the 15th anniversary of US and Vietnam’s partnership and this is reflected in the way Du Bois balances the traditional sounds of Vietnamese melodies and instruments with the more traditional Western ones.  Instruments are paired to create rather unique colors that are blended to provide different textures that move from lower ranges to higher ones.  This lends to music a sense of upward reach and growing beauty.

    Apollo Chamber Players continues to impress with their innovative programming but even more so by their technical abilities.  Most noticeable here is a real ensemble “voice” that allows for excellent interaction matched across the four players in truly amazing ways.  There is a great sense of excitement and energy that comes across in these performances as well making this one of Navona’s stellar quartet releases.

  • Sirius Quartet Takes Listeners to the Edge


    Playing on the Edge
    Sirius Quartet
    Navona Records 6249
    Total Time:  52:16
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    The album title alone is one’s first indication that the music explored here is going to be a bit more demanding and push boundaries.  For this latest Navona release with the Sirius Quartet, the program explores contemporary works by five composers.

    The album is framed by two single-movement works.  First is the rather intense, and oddly-named work “öðlo”.  The pronunciation comes from ancient Icelandic, “oh-thlo”.  Ian Erickson’s piece is part of a larger five-movement structure where specific rhythmic, harmonic, and motivic aspects are the primary focuss where the stress of the movement’s name is an indicator for the qualities of the music itself.  It is a rather intense affair that seems somewhat disparate at first, but as one begins to enter into his soundworld the ideas begin to interconnect more than what first meet the ear.  The final work, Sneak Into the Q City by Mari Tamaki brings the listener from dissonance to more harmonius conclusions in rather fascinating lyrical style that helps temper the harsher aspects of the harmony as the work begins.

    Marga Richter’s String Quartet No. 3 is a slightly more traditional work but equally conceptual in its construction.  The opening movement is an examination of stillness with a lyric line that moves slowly as a somewhat jagged rhythmic pattern helps provide a steady pulse of sorts.  The central movement focuses around a five-note motive that recurs five times in a modified variation technique.  The final movement, which is almost the length of the first two, is constructed in four segments that in some respect echo the opening half of the piece with lyricism, a sense of forward motion, a rather bizarre tango/march and then a sort of quodlibet of musical references to a popular song and a work by Soler before ending rather mystically.  The other quartet is Brian Feld’s first essay in the genre.  This is a four-movement affair with movements that follow a somewhat traditional flow.  The changing meter of the opening movement is balanced with a slower second movement.  The third “scherzo”-like movement is set in a rhythmic pattern that pits three against two, a slight elaboration from the motifs that open the work.  In the finale, this triple-note motive returns now a bit more excited.  The overarching connections between these duple triple motives create a larger unity to the work that is further revealed as the  piece becomes more familiar.  These two quartets are separated by a three movement piece by Jennifer Castellano, Images by Paul Klee.   Each of the movements takes its inspiration from the Swiss artist’s work.  It opens with music to depict Klee’s Twittering Machine (1922) which creates its own odd rhythmic energy.  The central movement is in a more typical ABA structure and explores Klee’s Dream City (1921).  In the finale, Castellano employs a more traditional form to further connect with Klee’s Fugue in Red (1911).  Throughout important motivic connections help provide unity to the piece which helps connect it more to the other pieces in this program.

    Sirius is an excellent choice to explore these new works and they provide committed performances with excellent rhythmic precision.  The lyrical moments of the pieces equally stand out.  In what seems to be often disparate musical ideas, they help guide the listener through these often difficult landscapes.  An overall interesting exploration of new music for string quartet worth checking out.