Album review: One of the top recordings of 2021 – Spektral Quartet performs Thorvaldsdottir

Ever since its wake in the course of the Age of Enlightenment, the medium of string quartet has lured composers into untrodden creative paths, resulting in sonic discoveries of unique intimacy and connectivity. Honed into being by Haydn and Mozart with their ground-breaking scores, the string quartet was carried over to the next level by Beethoven in his last years, adapting the medium into extended musical narratives and unforeseen contrapuntal statements.

In the course of the stylistic upheavals of the 20th century, the textural potential of the four string instruments endured, providing perennial seedbed for the unexpected, as demonstrated by the musical compositions as diverse as those of Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, Elliott Carter, György Ligeti, Morton Feldman, George Crumb, Sofia Gubaidulina, Steve Reich, Hans Abrahamsen and Kaija Saariaho, to name but a few notable contributors to the string quartet literature.

Two years ago, the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir presented us with her first take on the medium, Enigma (2019) for string quartet. Co-commissioned by Spektral Quartet, Carnegie Hall and Washington Performing Arts, the three-movement, twenty-seven-minute quartet was premiered in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace in Washington D.C. on 29 October 2019. This year, Spektral Quartet’s first recording was released on CD and digital download by Dorian Sono Luminus.

Perhaps the most wonderful chamber music album of the year, Spektral Quartet’s recorded performance of Enigma makes a tremendous impact on the new EP-abum. An absolutely riveting score, abundant with sonorous and textural finesse, clad in terrific array of harmonic colour, Enigma is certainly one of those pieces that gain from repeated hearings. As Thorvaldsdottir’s musical imagination unfolds in the hands of the four extraordinary musicians of the Spektral Quartet, the listener is treated with incessant discovery, resulting in many joyful hours spent in the unique sounding realm of Enigma.

According to the composer’s note, the music of Enigma is inspired by the notion of the “in-between”, juxtaposing flow and fragmentation.

”Pulsating stasis – the “whole”, an expanding and contracting fundament – is contrasted with fragmented materials – shadows of things that live as part of the whole. Harmonies emerge and evaporate or break into pieces in various ways, leaving traces of materials that project through different kinds of textures and nuances and gradually take on their own shape. Some return to the core, some remain apart. Throughout the piece, the perspective continuously moves between the two, the fundament and the fragmented shadows, but the focus is always their relationship – the “in-between”, Thorvaldsdottir writes.

In her score, the composer establishes a series of extended techniques, including several types of bowing and glissandi, alongside various tremolo textures as well as fascinating microtonal harmonies. Combined with standard techniques, Thorvaldsdottir’s expressive tools are not reduced to mere gadgets for musical effects, but organically linked to the nature and needs of the material. Although vividly evocative, Enigma does not involve extra-musical narrative per se.

”As with my music generally, the inspiration behind Enigma is not something I am trying to describe through the piece – to me, the qualities of the music are first and foremost musical. When I am inspired by a particular element or quality, it is because I perceive it as musically interesting, and the qualities I tend to be inspired by are often structural, like proportion and flow, as well as relationships of balance between details within a larger structure, and how to move in perspective between the two — the details and the unity of the whole”, the composer has written.

Enigma opens with a sustained sequence of ”white noise”, produced on all four instruments. Out of the sonic hue, first pitched lines emerge, serving as sounding anchors in the midst of several types of musical noise, unraveling in delicate dynamics. Recurring glissando passages provide kinetic impetus, as the movement enters one textural realm after another. While there is no specific story to tell, on aural and emotional levels, a spellbinding sounding narrative takes place as the eleven-minute movement matures.

Thorvaldsdottir’s musical transformations are often subtle and layered; gradually unfolding musical processes behaving like natural phenomena. As the music reaches double-bar, one’s bearing may be uncertain, but the sense of arrival is tangible.

Clocking at circa eight minutes, the second movement is set forth with a contrapuntal game of pizzicati and glissandi, with swift arpeggio bursts woven into the fabric. Two minutes into the movement, the music reaches freeze-frame, manifested in sublimely oscillating textures of sustained string lines. These eventually give over to airy tremolos and biting strokes, before the movement revolves back to where it started. Instead of repeating the opening, Thorvaldsdottir writes a deep, slowly pulsating coda, bringing the second movement to its deep, dramatic close.

The third movement is introduced with a cascading constellation of glissandi, out of which long-held tones emerge, followed by pizzicati and col legno figures. The slowly-moving harmonic lines suggest a kind of slow, candle-lit chorale, taking hold of the music and paving the way for the static core of the nine-minute movement.

However, the music does not linger. Instead, the players embark upon a dark-hued elegy, one of the most deeply moving sections in Enigma. Once its songs are sung, slow, breath-like pulsations take hold, and escort the music to its home beyond the threshold of hearing.

A superlative performance of a truly one-of-a-kind score, the premiere recording of Enigma transcends beyond any verbal descriptions. According to the composer, absolute tranquility with the necessary amount of concentration and determination needed to perform the music. With the members of the Spektral Quartet, Thorvaldsdottir’s score is taken care of with immense musicality and imagination. A performance of unique dedication and commitment, the music is recorded with incredible sonic precision and focus, yielding to one of the most important musical statements of the year 2021.

Spektral Quartet

Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Enigma (2019) for string quartet

Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-92250 (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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