5against4

The Kreutzer Quartet return with seven of Finnissy’s works for string quartet. All of them are enigmatic, and in almost all of them he actively seeks to undermine in different ways the conventional quartet dynamic. Plain Harmony I, II and III live up to their title, projecting a general sense of hymn-like unity. However, the first progresses with a stodgy, unpredictable sense of direction and a thoroughly unclear main melodic line, even more so later on when it seems to get somewhat lost in its own ruminations. The second and third are less dense, focussing more on individual filigree, often within the context of alternating dynamic extremes (loud=united, soft=individuated); the second is done and dusted in less than 90 seconds, while the third, barely a minute longer, manages to attain a modest level of majesty.

Multiple Forms of Constraint breaks up the quartet by pitting one violin against the other three players, the former of which doggedly persists in its folk-like material against a measured assortment of textural etherealia until a point when (minus the cello) they work together, second violin and viola fleshing out the first violin’s increasingly earnest outpourings. The disc contains two large-scale works composed in the early 1980s, Nobody’s Jig and the First String Quartet. The latter is the quartet at their most homogeneous, establishing a network of tiny tendrils seemingly fashioned from soft slivers of harmonics before exploding into fast intricacy and then splintering into quiet pizzicati, becoming distant and introverted. The piece is dominated by oscillations such as this, between tutti ‘in your face’ surges and retreats into near inaudibility, establishing a heightened, unpredictable environment that continually feels poised to do something completely different, filling the music and the listener with nervous excitement.

Nobody’s Jig displays a similar kind of poise, though here within the context of a complex kind of equilibrium, delicately balanced around a behavioural dialogue between intensely individual counterpoint, coloured with muscular angular movement and tremolandi, and staccatos fired out over thin sustained pitches in the middle distance, which comes to feel strangely peaceful. This is later extended to encompass generalised textures and bursts of melody that subsequently melt into mush. But it’s one of the shortest works on the disc, the three-minute Sehnsucht, that arguably speaks loudest here. There’s something profoundly unsettling about this restrained little piece, its music inclined to remain in a relatively narrow bandwidth, seemingly one step removed from us, thin and yearning, with individual melodic impulses emerging out of the tightly compressed united group. In ways difficult to fathom or articulate, there’s something almost unbearably moving about it.

—Simon Cummings