Introduced with a polemical essay by Peter Sheppard Skaerved, here are string quartets from the Barcelona school of composers, headed by Josep Soler (b. 1935), teacher of the other two composers represented. He reminds us that beyond the power centres of great, rich cities there are ‘extraordinary and unique compositional schools ranging from the Baltic republics to Korea’ which we must take into account.
Peter Sheppard (as we used to know him when his brother Philip was still the Kreutzers’ cellist) celebrates the Catalan school’s determination to ‘engaged with the established canon’. Time warp, or fruitful quarrying of a rich vein?
To simplify, all these works share a language which does not go far beyond Schoenberg’s and Berg’s. The longest, and for many collectors it will prove the most interesting, is Soler’s 1995 26 minute meditation upon Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang from Op. 132, diatonic with subtle distortions and little surprises, eschewing the faster sections Beethoven himself introduced for contrast in his long slow movement. Soler’s earlier quartet of 1974 is more overtly Schoenbergian in style, and neither of them has any truck with the more extreme extended techniques of latter-day string writing. The quartet of a few years later by Albert Sarda (b.1943) does not sound like the work of a young man, nor really does the second quartet (1994) of Miquel Roger (b. 1954) sound like music by a composer in his forties who had allowed international developments in the ’80s to lead him towards a personal language.
But do not let me put you off too easily. All this music is wonderfully played and recorded in a Loughton church with ideal acoustics for the purpose; the Kreutzers leave you in no doubt of their commitment and conviction. Taken one at a time, I enjoyed them all, and found the Beethoven gloss moving and thought provoking – not as personal as Strauss’s metamorphosis of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh, but engaging nonetheless. Sheppard acknowledges that the start of Sarda’s quartet from the ’70s ‘could almost come from Soler’s 1974 piece’, and this does suggest that as a teacher Soler has put his own stamp upon a generation of Catalan composers to an extent which cramped their individual development. It contrasts markedly with the individuality and liveliness of the music by numerous Spanish composers who had studied with Luis de Pablo of Madrid, many of them represented in Strasbourg’s Musica1999, attended by Seen&Heard.
A few years ago I attended a few concerts in Barcelona, but found only one of contemporary music. I gained an impression that musical education there was distinctly backward and lacking in vitality. I brought back a box-full of CDs from Catalunya, listening to which proved at the time discouraging and dispiriting. Peter Sheppard Skaerved argues persuasively here that these composers are ‘exploring an exciting border zone’, and that it is not inappropriate that this ‘music of denied expectation, rhythmic and colouristic paradox – – ‘ should be ‘bubbling out of the intellectual and artistic cauldron that is contemporary Catalunya’.
For readers who would like to explore this music, which is rarely heard in UK, the Association of Catalan Composers has a series of monographic CDs, including Soler on CD-09-A-53, and Ars Harmonica has one devoted to Miquel Roger (with another string quartet) on AH013.