Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets Nos. 8–12
ATMA 2672 (2 CDs: 104:52)
I treasure my recording on Atma 2188/89 of the first seven R. Murray Schafer string quartets, which covered 1970–1998. Partly through the advocacy of the Molinaris, the composer has picked up the pace, and the next five were composed in 2000–12. This disc ostensibly puts us up to date, but Schafer is such a creatively unquenchable source, I won’t be surprised (and indeed hope) to see another installment in this series.
Shafer (b. 1933) is arguably Canada’s greatest living composer. But more than that, he is a figure on the world’s musical stage. More than almost any composer I know, he has crashed through stylistic and aesthetic boundaries, refusing to be bound by any definition. Yet at the same time his music is not so eclectic that it overwhelms the sense of a personal voice. In fact, just the opposite—I can’t think of another composer who comes closer to the wild embrace of the entire world that goes back to the cosmic experiments of Ives. Schafer has also been one of the most influential theorists of environmental music (his book
The Tuning of the World
is a classic in the field), and the totality of sound (and our human experience of it) seems to be at the root of all his work. This is abundantly clear in the first work on this set, the Ninth Quartet (the Eighth is on the second disc of reasons of duration). Before anything we hear the (recorded) voice of a child (Odile Portugais) singing, and during the piece the sounds of children at play ripple periodically through the background. There’s no boundary here between art and life.
Schafer’s music is distinguished by a highly personal harmonic practice, one that is tonal but never follows obvious traditional models. It just sounds fresh and right. All these pieces have a sense of the grand rhetoric of the medium, but never embrace tradition self-consciously or with a sense of self-importance or satisfaction.
This review is not a place for a detailed exegesis of these works, in part because they really seem to be part of a continuous outpouring, where the composer picks up in one work where he left off in the previous one (literally, the child’s song in the Ninth is a tune from near the end of the Eighth). I hear debts to Impressionism and Shostakovich, but never in a sense of deliberate citation. Formally, the overall tone is that of a continuous stream of musical consciousness. Nevertheless, the works can be distinguished on at least the surface level as follows:
No.8 (2000–01) is in two movements, the first full of skittering, nervous energy and striking counterpoint between textural layers. The second is as open and languid as the first was furious, and it has a memorable “sighing” accompaniment figure, based on repeated downward portamentos. The gesture becomes melodic near the end, now bending upwards. The movement also works up to a series of shattering climaxes.
No. 9 (2005) is memorable for the interplay of its rich, lyrical writing with the aforementioned recorded sounds of children.
No. 10 (2005) has the subtitle “Winter Birds,” and is stiller and sparer in texture. There is an evocation of birdsong, but this is not Messaien; it’s carefully rationed and doesn’t sound like an ornithological catalog. It’s probably the starkest work of the five, and it ends with a narrated epigraph by the composer himself (I think), describing the landscape that evoked the piece.
No. 11 (2006) is in five movements (the previous two quartets consist of single movements in many
sections). It feels like perhaps the most abstract and consciously “classical” work of the set. Each movement has a much more clearly defined character and characteristic technique, maintained throughout without the sort of morphing that distinguishes much of the other quartets. The propulsive opening movement is particularly compelling, and the final movement includes a recording of the ethereal high drone of an Aeolian harp.
No. 12 (2012) shares thematic material with the preceding quartets, but I find it particularly notable for a recurrent sweeping melody, whose large leaps feel particularly “noir” to me. It has the most forwardly lyrical character of the five quartets, and feels like a sustained song throughout its quarter hour, interrupted by rushing outbursts but always returning to its essential melodic character.
These descriptions only scratch the surface of this music; I can only hope they suggest some of its rich diversity. I think this is emerging as one of the great quartet cycles post-Bartók (only Carter’s I think rivals it, and his is a
different animal). I find Schafer to be an enormously courageous, indeed fearless artist, one who is deeply in love with life and the world around him. While he has pieces in every conceivable medium (his
is a truly Wagnerian multipart music theater work performed in the summer out-of-doors, and a fitting index of his genre-busting ambition), I can’t help but feel the quartets are going to be one of his greatest legacies, a near-perfect balance of the original and the traditional. He’s the real thing, and we’re privileged to be living in his time.
A word about the Molinari Sting Quartet (Olga Ranzenhofer and Frédéric Bednarz, violins; Frédéric Lambert, viola; Pierre-Alain Bouvrette, cello): the Eighth is a reissue, and the Quartet’s earlier personnel for that one was radically different, with only Ranzenhofer being a constant; the other members were Johannes Jansonius, violin; David Quinn, viola; Julie Trudeau, cello. They sound fantastic, their devotion to this music is obvious, and the recorded sound couldn’t be more flattering to their artistry and the high purpose of this music. This is sure to be on my next Want List.
FANFARE: Robert Carl
Works on This Recording
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