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A bravely engaging disc

Planet Hugill, Robert Hugill

Bravely engaging: the Solem Quartet’s intriguing new recording of Thomas Adès’ The Four Quarters.

The Solem Quartet’s recording expands on the themes of Adès’ quartet via a striking collage of shorter movements from Baroque to contemporary.

The Solem Quartet has recorded Thomas Adès’ 2010 string quartet The Four Quarters for Orchid Classics but instead of pairing the work with another large-scale piece, they have explored the themes implicit in Adès exploration of the twenty-four hour period during which the earth rotates on its axis. So the four Adès movements are split across the disc, separated by a variety of shorter pieces that explore themes, taking us from night and sleep, through greeting the morning, to a Summer moon, evening in the village and a child falling asleep. The selection of composers and pieces is eclectic, Ivor Gurney, Henry Purcell, Cassandra Miller, William Marsey, Florence Price, Bela Bartok, Robert Schumann, Aaron Parker, and Kate Bush, many in arrangements by members of the quartet.

We begin with ‘Nightfalls’ from Adès’ The Four Quarters, the two violins forming little points of edgy light over more sombre colours, a sense of the stars dancing. The edgy, pointed feel continues even though rhythms get more developed and intense. There is a moment of real dramatic intensity, but at the end we are left with the stars dancing. This is followed by an intriguing combination, William Newell has arranged Ivor Gurney’s Sleep but used the arioso ‘Thy Hand Belinda’ from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas as an introduction. It seems to work, and the overall effect is expressive and stylish. Cassandra Miller’s 2011 string quartet Warblework explores the regional sounds of the Pacific coast, including birdsong. ‘Hermit Thrush’ features the violin evoking the thrush’s song, but it also feels like traditional fiddling. Gradually the other instruments join in the fun to create some imaginative textures. The traditional song Ca’ the yowes is here given a beautifully shaped performance in quite a traditional arrangement by Stephanie Tress.

‘Morning Dew’, the second of Adès’ The Four Quarters is vivid and edgy with lots of plucked strings the individual notes creating a series of complex rhythms and jagged textures. These drops of dew certainly have a point to them. Eventually, bows take over but the lines remain jagged and vivid. It is followed by music from Purcell’s Now does the glorious day appear, his ode for Queen Mary’s birthday in 1689. Amy Tress’ imaginative arrangement features a rather pointed cello ground bass and intriguing violin melody. William Marsey’s Be nice to see you combines the string quartet with pre-recorded material – a phone ringing, fragments of conversation.  The quartet seems to interrupt the voices, and to comment somewhat reminiscent of Steve Reich’s Different Trains. It is an intriguing yet strange work, and somewhat disturbing as we are not quite sure where things might go. ‘Veery’ is another movement from Cassandra Miller’s Warblework and here the birdsong is evoked via swooping harmonics in a way which makes it seem as if we are seeing it through a distorting mirror.

‘Days’, the third of Adès’ The Four Quarters begins in quietly intense fashion, but with a repeated rhythm constantly present. This rhythm has at first the other instruments weaving round it, but it becomes insistent and all-consuming. Nothing is quite as it seems however, the rhythm is notated in complex fashion across the barline and each instrumentalist has a different view of it. Yet by the end, all seems to vanish in an evocative fashion. Florence Price’s Summer Moon was originally written in 1938 for the pianist Memry Midgett, who performed with Count Basie and Billy Holliday. William Newell’s arrangement features flowing instrumental lines weaving in and out of each other. Bartok’s An evening in the village was originally one of his Ten Easy Piano Pieces from 1908-11, and here is heard in an arrangement by William Newell. The music incorporates Bartok’s folk-inspired style and seems to comprise a dialogue two different motifs, the considered and the perky. ‘Child Falling Asleep’ comes from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, here in an arrangement by William Newell which weaves the melody through idiomatic quartet textures. Aaron Parker’s easqela – suspended, spacious in a dusky half light is from a work which Parker wrote for the Solem Quartet. The title is invented, but Parker is inspired by Suffolk sunsets, though when listening cold I rather thought that the warmly expressive viola melody sounded not a little Hungarian!

The last of Adès’ The Four Quarters is ‘The Twenty-fifth Hour’, here bright, high and jagged rhythms which develop into something strong, expressive and vivid. There is, however, a gradual unwinding, returning to the opening and diminishing out of sight. And the disc ends with Kate Bush, of course! The sounds of the sea lead only gradually to the sounds of the string quartet, a melody explored via an imaginative accompaniment.

This is a bravely engaging disc which allows the quartet to bring a great deal more of their own personalities into the programming than otherwise might be the case.

And the paths that they lead us on are intriguing indeed.

The Adès performances shine out for their vividness, boldness and commitment to expressivity, whilst the other music sheds different lights on these concerns.

On paper, the programme might look a little indigestible, but makes perfect sense when listened to. My first listen was blind, and I was completely captivated, and even more so when I listened again knowing what was being played.

The recording:
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