Music & Vision

Members of the Kreutzer Quartet believe that chamber music should be both seen and heard; the art being a composite of performance mechanics and interaction between fellow musicians. Since its formation in 1988 the KSQ has become recognized as one of Europe’s most dynamic and eclectic quartets — its acclaimed recordings for Metier, Naxos, Chandos, and Carlton are very largely of modern works. Here on DVD the four string players demonstrate the inner workings of a fully integrated ensemble as exemplified in twentieth century music from composers of Russia, Hungary, Poland and England.

The quartet is the dedicatee of numerous works, and during twenty-four years it has established creative partnerships with composers including Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998), David Matthews (born 1943), Judith Weir (born 1954) and Hafliði Hallgrímsson (born 1941 in Iceland). The four men value close links with a number of leading American composers — they associated intensively with George Rochberg (1918-2005) in the last few years of his life, as well as working closely alongside Elliott Schwartz (born 1936), and the symphonist Gloria Coates (born 1938). Their collaboration with art galleries has attracted widespread attention and large audiences attend their annual residency at the Tate Gallery, St Ives. In 2008 KSQ appeared at several festivals including the Venice Biennale, and the Montpelier Fes listeners tival. They are also ‘Artists in association’ at York University.

So how do they ‘stack up’ for home viewing/listening?

In the case of Lutoslawski’s quartet, the best-known CD interpreters are La Salle Quartet; Orfeo d’Or — Salzburger Festpieldokumente ( C632041B ); Alban Berg Quartett — EMI 5139742 (three discs) and Kronos Quartet — Nonesuch ( 7559792552 ). The Kreutzers join all three of the above; each one a fine recommendation, with or without visuals. The Lutoslawski Polish work (1964) is arguably the most celebrated example of aleatory composition integrating notated music with chance performance (ie sections left to the determination of its performer/s). Little wonder so few ensembles record this work.

On the subject of Stravinsky’s ‘Three Pieces’ (1914), modern classical music commentator Paul Griffiths notes: ‘for the first time in the history of the genre, [this work] is determinedly not a “string quartet” but a set of pieces to be played by four strings’. The Three Pieces were originally published without titles, but Stravinsky later orchestrated them, adding titles and a fourth piece to create his Four Etudes for Orchestra. Thus the Three Pieces were titled ‘Danse’, ‘Excentrique’ and ‘Cantique’.

In ‘Danse’ each of the four strings appears to do its own thing with startling obstinacy. The relationship between each instrument constantly shifts leaving one curiously uneasy. As its title ‘Excentrique’ aptly implies, the second piece is whimsical, fickle and modernistic with a use of color and scoring found in Stravinsky’s early orchestral writing. The final episode, ‘Cantique’, finds the instruments blending forlornly in a solemn liturgical chorus; a dramatic contrast to the preceding two movements.

The Ligeti work, lasting twenty-one minutes (approx) is dedicated to the LaSalle Quartet who premiered it in Baden-Baden (December 1969). This second string quartet is a major work belonging to a string tradition culminating with Berg and Bartók. The five movements differ one from another, notably in their temporal character. The first is largely broken up, as in ‘Aventures’ (Darmstadt 1962). The lyrical second movement proceeds very slowly, seeming to come from far away. Ligeti’s third movement is a characteristic mechanistic study and his penultimate movement is rapid and menacing: everything that happened before is telescoped. Finally, in marked contrast, the fifth movement spreads itself out. Each movement has a consistent configuration but each time the coloring or viewpoint is changed, so the overall form only really emerges when one listens to all five components in context.

Like the third quartet conceived before its predecessor, Finnissy’s twenty minute second quartet has a classical model; viz Haydn’s Quartet No 53 in D major, Op 64 No 5, The Lark (1790); one of the so-called ‘Tost’ quartets. The Op 64 constitute a second set of six quartets for the violinist Johann Tost, leader of the second violins in Haydn’s Esterháza Orchestra from 1783 until his 1788 departure for Paris. Haydn’s nimble soul appears to permeate the whole of Finnissy’s second quartet.

Regarding the entire DVD we are informed that it is: ‘a valuable and rewarding tool for observing how the players of an ensemble communicate and interact, especially in works like that of Lutoslawski which allow performers a degree of choice.’

After studying Metier’s preamble and the ‘www’ heralding this release, I was left (mistakenly) with the impression that beside the four performances there may be additional explanatory features; some background regarding Stravinsky, Ligeti, Lutoslawski and Finnisy’s sources and intentions — content other than the unadorned creations of 1914, 1964, 1968 and 2006 (Finnissy, age 66). Statements in the sales pitch are self-evident; indeed the observations (above) are surely true of all top quality filmed DVDs of the finest chamber music of modern times.

An apt verdict on the Kreuzter readings is that of veteran music commentator Peter Grahame Woolf. He said of Metier’s DVD: ‘the performances of all this music are riveting, captivating listeners who would normally find engagements with some of it far from easy. Essential purchase.’

The disc is universal-play (region 0) and double-sided PAL / NTSC so should play in any country.

—Howard Smith