Friday 4 July 2014

String quartets by Helmut Lachenmann that will challenge and fascinate in equal measure on a new release from Mode Records, in extremely accomplished performances by the JACK Quartet

The German composer Helmut Lachenmann (b.1935)  was born in Stuttgart and studied with Johann Nepomuk David (1895-1977) at the Stuttgart Musikhochschule and, later, with Luigi Nono (1924-1990) in Venice before working, briefly, at the electronic music studio at the University of Ghent.

He has lectured at Darmstadt and taught composition at the Musikhochschule Hannover. Lachenmann’s musical language embraces an entire sound-world made accessible through unconventional playing techniques though, in his later works, he has simplified his forms. Lachenmann has received many distinguished awards and, in 2008, was appointed Fromm Visiting Professor at the Music department at Harvard University.

His compositions include choral and vocal works, orchestral works, concerted works, chamber works and instrumental works as well as pieces for for one and two pianos.

Of his chamber works, the three String Quartets provide an excellent insight into Lachenmann’s sound world, ranging, as they do, from 1972 to 2000/01. Mode Records have just released a new recording of these quartets from the JACK Quartet . Comprising violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland, the JACK Quartet is focused on the commissioning and performance of new works and has worked closely with many contemporary composers including Helmut Lachenmann.

mode 267
Gran Torso (1972) (String Quartet No.1) opens with rasps and strange harmonics with lightly played, bouncing bows. There are shrieks and outbursts before a short silent passage. When the silence ends, louder scrapings and percussive sounds can be heard, offset with little pizzicato notes. Slowly there are occasional longer bowed phrases to offset the sharper sounds. Little rising, sliding motifs also offset the sharper sounds, sounds that are like no other string sounds one has heard. A hushed section follows that soon grows into a fierce group of sounds, with sawing, shunting, rushing effects. This leads to another hushed, gently swirling section from which little motifs arise, all constructed with much sensitivity and care.

It is quite amazing how these players achieve such a sustained hush. Another pause precedes more hushed whispers from which new sounds arise, often percussive, sometimes like course breathing. The music continues in this vein for some time, with just the occasional outburst of sound until, eventually, the sounds become more dynamic with percussive sounds, the squeaks and rasps of the opening, pizzicato notes and short sharp sounds. Eventually a hovering background is heard from which the preceding sounds re-appear, even more dramatically, with growls and rasps from the players strings. Again a longer bowed phrase is heard but it is the strange sounds that take us soaring until we are grounded again by short, sharp little noises that grow ever quieter. There are sudden strikes on the strings, punctuated by pauses in the coda.

This is music that requires intense concentration. It is a difficult but very fascinating work, that requires the listener to cast aside accepted ideas, particularly on string playing technique.

A short phrase opens Reigen seliger Geister (Dance of the Blessed Spirits) (1989) (String Quartet No.2) before we are whisked around strange bowed string phrases reminiscent, at times, of Bartok’s night music. Lachenmann creates some incredibly strange sounds from his four string players, fleeting, shifting, quicksilver phrases that rush around, perhaps creating the image of the ‘Blessed Spirits’. Much of the music is hushed. A little way in, string sounds emerge from the hush in rushing, dynamic phrases, only to retreat into the quiet. Later long bowed phrases emerge at a variety of pitches around which quieter sounds are heard. Sharper, shrill high notes emerge. Eventually the whole quartet plays longer, louder phrases with dissonances as the music emerges more solidly than ever before. Short punctuated phrases appear shooting out, later dancing around, before becoming more agitated. Towards the end the music softens with little bow phrases and strange descending phrases, rasping in quality as the ‘Spirits’ seem to fade. There is a quiet shimmering background from out of which sounds emerge before silence pervades.

Grido (‘Cry’ or ‘shout’) (2000-01) (Third Quartet) brings rising and falling motifs that swirl around, developing in dissonance and dynamics. The music soon falls quieter but with little outbursts followed by even more hushed playing as curious phrases shoot out, each constantly changing. Soon there is a long held, unison, growling phrase that leads to a livelier, dynamic section, with each of the players providing a different motif. Passionate, anguished phrases appear, becoming increasingly frantic before becoming more quicksilver and fleeting. Later the intensity returns but eventually falls to a hush with just a background murmur and occasional sudden outbursts of a variety of sounds. The strings rise up and provide motifs high in the register before moving to a wider range of pitch, sounding off each other in an exciting section but, again, the music quietens before leading up to an insistent ‘drone’ from all players – almost like the drone of bagpipers, such is the harmony, which is always varying. Long held notes lead to a quieter section though with violent outbursts before the music falls to end on a single pizzicato note.

Of the three quartets on this disc this is the one that I would recommend starting with. The musical language, whilst still consistently Lachenmann’s, is easier to comprehend with more conventional use of instruments.

For many this is music that will strain the bounds of their understanding. Certainly this is very challenging music that requires the listener to cast aside accepted ideas.

The JACK Quartet provides extremely accomplished playing in this incredibly demanding music.  The recordings, made between 2007 and 2011 at various venues are extremely good and there are interesting booklet notes by Paul Griffiths.

I must mention that the CD insert gives an incorrect timing for Gran Torso as 21’38 whereas it lasts 24’15.

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