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A thing of beauty

Solem Quartet's Painted Light

Charlotte Gardner, dCS

Solem Quartet have earned a stellar reputation for clever curation and championing the new. They have produced a thing of beauty with this presentation of music ‘awash with colour’ – most of which is recorded for the first time here.

Two new commissions by two British composers form the backbone of Painted Light. First, Edmund Finnis’s eight-movement Devotions, a 2022 work conceived as a response to Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, op. 132 and in particular to its third-movement hymn of gratitude. Like the Beethoven, Finnis’s work alternates between slow-moving, chorale-like passages drawing on ancient church modes, and more buoyant, rhythmically vital music, opening one part at a time as a gradual build-up of long, ascending, clashing and resolving musical lines, initially dark but slowly blossoming into something more warmly tranquil.

It’s all tautly grown and shaped by the Solem Quartet with fabulous colouristic variation.

Elsewhere, a vast toolbox of colouristic technique is employed towards the growth, wax and wane of the subsequent movements’ musical argument. The tender fifth, for example, built around a simple ground bass, could end up sounding like a cheap crossover tear-jerker in the hands of lesser musicians. Here, however, it catches your breath for all the right reasons.

The second commission is Camden Reeves’s fifth string quartet, The Blue Windows: ten minutes of slowly shifting, overlapping chordal writing inspired by Marc Chagall’s 1976 triptych of stained glass windows presented to the Art Institute of Chicago, and painted here into a musical vision of floating dust in a blue-tinted sunbeam, against shimmering, vibrating organ pedal points.

The quartet could not have fulfilled the colour brief more seriously, or brought closer partnering, more sleek-edged rhythmic handling or sheer confidence.

While its tender moments are heart-strings-pullingly good (listen to the delicately luxurious, smokey-toned serenity it brings to second violinist William Newell’s transcription of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now), it’s perhaps most exciting of all in its broad, rich-toned strength – for example, over Dutch composer Henriëtte Bosmans’s Debussy-esque String Quartet of 1927, which is a knock-out for the sensual rhetorical freedom with which they articulate its expressionist passion.

Add a ravishing guest appearance from Ayanna Winter-Johnson, singing the vocal part she recently added to Earth, her 2018 hymn of wonder to our planet, and yes, Painted Light is awash with colour, whilst also radiating modernity and soul. I’ve given you the Finnis and Both Sides Now for the playlist.

The recording:
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