In 2005, the Quatuor Danel succeeded the Lindsay Quartet as Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Manchester. The new quartet’s predilection for progressive programming of works by composers such as Ligeti, Xenakis, Rihm, and Lachenmann met with a warm reception from the Manchester audiences, which encouraged the Quatuor Danel in the direction of focusing on newer works (although they continue to play the old masterworks as well). Quite unsurprisingly, local composers began writing music for the group, and some of the results of this flurry of compositional activity are heard on the present CD. Of the four composers presented here, I can recall having previously heard music only by John Casken, but each of them has a distinctive and attractive musical personality.
The 1974-born Camden Reeves is head of music and senior lecturer in composition at the University of Manchester, and his music, especially that for piano, has been widely performed. His first quartet, entitled Fireworks Physonect Siphonophore, begins the disc, its title drawn from a particular species of jellyfish-like aquatic organisms, famous (among biologists, at least) for their capa bility of exchanging groups of cells between colonies. No, I can’t explain how such a thing can hap pen, but the composer indicates that something analogous to that occurs in the music. The work opens with a series of notes in the violin that crescendo into pressure scratches (executed through great downward pressure on the bow and a lessening of bow speed). From that point, the music only increases into Xenakis-like complexity, but what might sound like chaos to some listeners may actually be very highly structured. There are a lot of notes in this brief (five-minute) work, and through them the composer apparently said everything he needed to.
The three-movement String Quartet No. 2 by Reeves is only about double the length of his first quartet, so these movements also pack a lot of activity into their brief duration, at least in the first half of each movement. The title, Dactylozooid Complex, undoubtedly suggests some sort of sequel to the first quartet, and sure enough, Dactylozooids turn out to be the tentacles armed with deadly stinging cells that hang down from various invertebrate denizens of the deep. This reminds me of the Portuguese-Man-of-War jellyfish that used to occasionally wash up into the shallow waters on the Ft. Lauderdale beach, where my childhood visits sometimes would be attended by painful stings. I know one Fanfare reviewer who would find this music as painful as stings from these sorts of tentacles, but I found it quite engaging. The first minute-long movement constitutes essentially one long upward cascade of notes in all four instruments followed by a section of punctuated silence, while the second picks up where the first left off, but adds a plethora of pressure scratches and pointillistic pizzicato before the silence concludes the movement. The third movement is a longer synthesis of the above —in fact, each movement is double the length of the preceding one, making the piece effectively cast in the form of A-B-AA-BB-AAAA-BBBB, where “A” is the busy activity, and “B” is the near silence. This structure is itself innovative, and quite effective.
Nestled in between the two quartets of Reeves is the Interlocking Melodies of Richard Whalley. Written in 2007 for the quartet that performs it here, the work is intended as a tribute to Gyorgy Ligeti (incidentally, for you non-Hungarian speakers, Ligeti’s given name is almost universally mis pronounced: It’s the Hungarian equivalent of George, and should be pronounced close to that sound, but with the substitution of the vowel sound in the word, “urge.” “Gy” is considered a single letter in Hungarian, and so the name is one syllable, not two). The quartet is constructed from interlocking melodies, all of which are based on the whole-tone scale. The composer states that he chose that scale since “it seems to defy gravity, as a result of its intervals being equal, thus its pitches being of equal weight.” Lest you think that you will be hearing a work in the style of, say Debussy, I hasten to say that the whole-tone scales used by the four instruments are all tuned a quarter-tone apart, making this a microtonal work —but one that is easier to listen to than you might think prima facie. Whalley is also a lecturer in composition at the University of Manchester.
John Casken (b. 1949) is the oldest composer represented on this disc, and likely the best known: I’ve seen recordings of his music even back in the LP era. His Choses en moi (Things in Me) was inspired, at least in its title, by Prokofiev’s 1928 piano cycle. Choses en soi (Things in Themselves). The title here refers to the fact that the composer quotes or alludes to phrases or things from his earlier works. The piece is quite motoristic throughout with the exception of a quiet middle section. Driving sequences of repeated notes propel the piece forward to the non-motoristic sections that utilize impassioned and quite dissonant counterpoint in the four instruments, playing largely in their upper registers. It is a very effective work, and has a particularly distinctive sound.
The half-hour, four-movement Ghosts of Great Violence by Philip Grange occupies 50 percent of the playing time of the CD. Grange, who currently serves as professor of composition at Manchester University, states that the work was inspired by visits to World War I Somme battlefield sites. The first movement draws its inspiration specifically from English novelist and poet Ford Madox Ford’s World War I tetralogy. Parade’s End, and the movement is characterized by an elegiac atmosphere and reflective solos in the cello, and gestures in close, dissonant parallel motion in all four instruments. In the second movement, violin I and viola engage in a kind of dialogue against an erratic pizzicato in the other instruments (meant to suggest the effects of the chlorine gas upon the unfortunately combatants who encountered it). Movement three follows without break, this movement being fast and driving. This time, violin II gets the primary solo, while the other players remain in the background. (As a long-time second violinist, this idea naturally appeals to me!) The closing movement, opening with a series of whispers in all four instruments, brings back elements from previous movements in spectral fashion (the movement is, in fact, entitled “Spectral Colloquies”) with timbral considerations moved to the foreground.
In this CD, one hears string-quartet playing of the first order. These are all difficult works to pull off, and Quatuor Danel does so superbly, with impeccable precision and conviction. For those whose musical tastes run to the quartets of, say, Lutoslawski or Penderecki, there will be ample rewards herein, and the disc receives a high recommendation accordingly.