Fanfare

This is not the sort of CD for collectors who like their ducks all in a row. The string quartets are scattered throughout the set in seemingly random order (3, 1, 2, 4), and these are interspersed with the other works, whose movements are again interspersed with other pieces. For instance, if you want to hear the Cello Suite in its entirety without interruptions, you’ll have to program your player to play tracks 2 and 10 on the first disc followed by track 7 on the second. Perhaps this is the idea behind the set’s title, Intricate Web, which is the subtitle of the Third String Quartet.

Liz Johnson is not a name I recognized, and being likely also unfamiliar to most readers of Fanfare, I suspect some biographical information on her would not be amiss. Born in 1964, she began her career as a teacher in London and Birmingham in the UK, but took an intended hiatus to study composition at Birmingham Conservatoire, obtaining a Ph. D. under Philip Cashian, who convinced her not to return to teaching, but to pursue a full-time career in composition. She became successful in that field, receiving performances by eminent groups throughout the UK and beyond. She is the composer of six string quartets, a clarinet quintet and other chamber music, and various unaccompanied vocal works.

I have elected to eschew the scattershot programming sequence of the CD’s producer, and consider these works in some sort of logical sequence, even to the point of examining the quartets in numerical order. With that in mind, I begin my discussion with Johnson’s First String Quartet, subtitled “Images of Trees.” The movement titles are themselves quite evocative, having been given the titles of “Clefts and fissures of bark,” “Winter branches,” and “Leaf,” and are based on photographs of trees from a park near where the composer lived. The work opens quietly on a unison B♭, but quickly “branches” out into all sorts of dissonant sonorities, with tonality quickly flitting about from one dissonant cluster of notes to another. I realize, immediately after having written this description, that it doesn’t do the music justice, as it is quite evocative and effective, with imaginative figuration constantly presented in different lights and color. Johnson employs glissandos and pizzicato lines in novel ways, quite unlike those of any other composer I can recall, and these devices seem integral to her conception of the work. About a minute and a half into the movement, the activity, rather subdued in the opening, picks up in vigor and drama. The second movement opens gently, as did the first, with gentle dissonances, although the effect is more along the lines of a “night music” movement, complete with murmurs and ghostly trills. The closing movement continues the mysterious ambience, and the inattentive listener will not even notice that a new movement has commenced.

Johnson’s Second Quartet was written in tribute to the composer’s then one-year-old godson, Elliott Wines, who was born in the last years of the 20th century. The composer has sought to portray the challenges of that era through the contrast of darker and lighter moods and musical textures. The tonality is still quite obscure, but sonorities are not as dissonant as they are in the First Quartet. I hear some influence from the quartets of Leoš Janáček in this work, especially the episodic character of the Moravian master’s music, but also some of his melodic gestures. The brief second movement (the entire quartet lasts less than 10 minutes) is entirely pizzicato, including some difficult-to-execute pizzicato glissandos, while the movement closes with a gently flowing essay that eventually fades away.

The Third Quartet, another 10-minute work, is cast in but a single movement. Here, the influence seems to be more that of Elliott Carter than any other composer who comes to mind, given the work’s metrical and tonal complexity. Of course, Johnson’s language and development of her materials remain her own. The work was the first she wrote for the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, who plays it—and the other quartet works on the program—with impeccable finesse and sensitivity, despite their ferocious difficulty. Just as the Third Quartet opens the program, the Fourth Quartet, almost as long as the other three combined, closes it. Like the Third, this work is also cast in a single movement, but adds a soprano to the quartet, extending the tradition begun by Schoenberg in his Second Quartet. Johnson, however, keeps the singer busy throughout the entire quartet, whereas the Austrian iconoclast employed one only in his quartet’s final movement. The subtitle, “Sky-burial,” comes from the extended narrative poem by Kathleen Jamie, the story tracing the final days and eventual passing of a woman. The composer describes her setting as a “landscape through which the voice travels, staring with a lush, complex river valley, moving up a long dry stone path leading out onto open moorland where the final ritual takes place.” Although I doubt a listener would hear much of this without knowing Johnson’s description, it does seem quite evident heard in light of her comments, and the soprano voice of Loré Lixenberg admirably captures the pathos of the dying woman being described. The music is in turn rugged, anguished, languid, and resigned, producing a haunting scenario that will not quickly be forgotten. This work is likely my favorite of the entire two-and-one-half hour concert.

The Fitzwilliam Quartet is also feature in three other works in this set. The brief Tide Purl is the composer’s most recent work for string quartet, and draws its inspiration from the play of light upon the sand as river water flowed over it on Druidstone Beach in Pembrokeshire. The piece is exquisitely and rather elegiacally crafted. Quite a contrast is found in Fantasia Forty-Something, written for the Fitzwilliam Quartet to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the group’s founding. Its musical material draws upon the ubiquitous Happy Birthday song, along with phrases derived from the names of the group’s members. The piece is a lot of fun to listen to, although the birthday tune has to be “reconstructed” in the listener’s mind. The Clarinet Quintet, “Sea-change,” is another major work in the set, a single-movement of almost a half-hour’s duration. It opens with whispers and flutterings in the clarinet and other instruments, creating an effect that sounds almost as though it were electronically generated. Only after several minutes does one hear anything at a dynamic level exceeding piano, but even then it takes a while longer for the quintet to get up to speed, as it were. Once it does, though, it becomes palpably exciting and dynamic, although the activity is frequently interrupted by ritornellos to the previous material. At one point, it sounds as if Johnson calls for a set of claves, and portions of the work are also given to the bass clarinet. Regardless of the instrument he may be playing, clarinetist Ronald Woodley maintains pure tone, unfailing technique, and engaging musicianship throughout this work.

The three-part Cello Suite demonstrates Johnson’s ability to sustain interest through a half-hour devoted to a solo instrument (I listened to it all the way through, instead of broken up as it is in the set, although the composer allows the movements to be played in any order). She does this through varying her motivic ideas, and developing them most ingeniously. Coloristic effects, such as pizzicato and the “seagull” effect (executed by playing artificial harmonics on glissando, while maintaining the distance between the two fingers of the left hand, causing the harmonics to jump from one to the other), are also judiciously drawn upon, and lyrical passages in which the soloist is given ample opportunity to display the cello’s wondrous singing ability are peppered with Pointillistic punctuations and other material. Johnson is full of surprises in this work, too, including the insertion of what for all the world sounds like an Irish jig. The Suite is given a breath-taking reading by Heather Tuach, cellist of the Fitzwilliam Quartet.

Towards the Sea is a trio for clarinet, viola, and cello, inspired like Tide Purl by the Druidstone Beach, and the work comprises a lovely, mostly quiet rumination on waves and their effect upon the observer. Loré Lixenberg appears again in Johnson’s Jo Shapcott Settings. Only the first of them is accompanied by piano, but Lixenberg’s voice is so lovely, so well placed, and so secure in intonation, I could listen to it unaccompanied all day long. The tonality of “Cabbage Dreams,” the first presented, is rather much akin to what one hears in the vocal writing of Alban Berg, but I don’t believe that Johnson is employing dodecaphony in it. In the unaccompanied songs, Johnson draws on extended vocal techniques, and produces works more akin to those of Berio or perhaps Peter Maxwell Davies (as in his Eight Songs for a Mad King). Lixenberg also sings the six-minute song Sleep Close, a tender lullaby to a never-existing child.

Liz Johnson’s music really resonated with me. After more than two and a half hours of it, I was ready to hear even more—and hope that I shall be able to do so eventually. Given the top-notch performances of this music, this set will have appeal to those who appreciate contemporary music with considerable stylistic variety, I can, therefore, do no less than give this issue my top recommendation.

—David DeBoor Canfield