The Carducci Quartet
St John’s Smith Square, 23rd March 2018
This was the second time I had heard the Carduccis perform the first five Philip Glass string quartets, following their performance at Kings Place as part of the marvellous Minimalism Unwrapped year long festival in 2015. They are, along with the Smith Quartet, (whose recording I have), and the Kronos Quartet, the experts in these works. The First Quartet dates from 1966, the next four from 1983, 1985, 1989 and 1991 respectively. Glass has composed a further three quartets in recent years, including one a couple of months ago, as well as a couple of other works for this ensemble drawn from music for films. I need to hear them.
Mind you there are an awful lot of Philip Glass compositions that I have yet to hear. I suspect I won’t. No matter. You’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. Of course that isn’t true but if you know your Glass you will know what I mean. I do find his chamber and piano music more intriguing than some of the larger scale works and, because I think the string quartet is the sine non qua of Western art music, these babies are my faves. There is more contrast, and therefore drama, than in the larger scale works though it is all relative.
The First Quartet was composed when Glass was in Paris studying under Nadia Boulanger, mixing with arty types and rejecting modernist composers, the likes of Xenakis, Boulez and Stockhausen, not because he couldn’t get on with their vibe but because he wanted to take a different course. He alighted on repetition and rhythm via Ravi Shankar and Indian classical music. Given that this was pretty much his first attempt at this new style it really is an impressive piece. There is still a degree of dissonance and apparent atonality which relates to modernism but the little cells of music in its two untitled movements, and the contrapuntal effects, are recognisably Glassian.
The Second Quartet, titled Company, was commissioned to accompany a monologue written by the master Samuel Beckett. The first and third, and second and fourth, movements are related and the soundworld is the classic harmonic progressions we know and, most of the time, love. The Third Quartet is drawn from the soundtrack that Glass composed for Paul Schrader’s film Mishima, about the eponymous Japanese novelist, though Glass had the quartet in mind throughout. There are six movements in total and they relate to the passages in the film, filmed in black and white, which flashback to Mishima’s childhood. They are varied in colour, playing with metrical accents and harmonic ideas.
The Fourth Quartet is a tribute to artist Brian Buczak and consists of three movements. This is a much more substantial piece than its predecessors and has pronounced elements of the Romantic referring, as it does, to the quartets of Schubert and Dvorak. The first movement moves away from familiar Glass territory into more complex polytonality, there is a yearning lyricism in the slower second movement and the third movement runs close to a chorale. This is surprisingly moving stuff.
The Fifth Quartet again titled Mishima also packs more of an emotional punch than you might expect from a cursory listen to Glass’s music. The very short first movement’s material appears again in the later four movements but we immediately know, with its pizzicato passages and long,melancholic phrases, that this is going to be a bit different. The second movement takes us back to more familiar Glass territory with triadic ostinatos for the lower strings, but even here the surface melodies reveal syncopations and unexpected shifts in phrasing. The pace hots ups a bit in the third movement, with a familiar motoric call and response, but the same elements recur before a shift into minor mode and the train slows down to a stop. The fourth movement starts slower, with a repeated swirl which accelerates, is subjected to some dissonant reworking, before slowing again. The last movement contains a much broader canvas of soaring lines and intricate figurations, interrupted by the slower themes from the first movement, before ending with a single pizzicato line. You would guess that this was “minimalist” but you might think it came from today’s generation and not from Glass himself.
Now I get why revivals of Glass operas can reliably pack out the ENO, terrific singing (especially choral), though not necessarily in an accessible language, a colourful production, a story, (though not much of one), but musically these are built up of big slabs of repetition. In contrast the string quartets never outstay their welcome and, in this particular case, you can see the best possible advocates perform them for not much more than a tenner, in the ever atmospheric SJSS. So it was a shame to see it less than half full.
So come on all you young’uns. If you can reclaim the opera house from us pensioner types you can do the same to the SJSS which, I have to admit, probably needs a dose of diverse blood.