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Alan Cooper Reviews: Traces: a lecture-recital by the Bozzini Quartet

CLEMENS MERKEL and ALISSA CHEUNG: Violins
STÉPHANIE BOZZINI: Viola
ISABELLE BOZZINI: Cello

Friday, 28 October 2016

At their first concert on Friday, the Bozzini Quartet from Montreal in Canada took us on a fascinating journey of seven stops illustrating different embodiments of the string quartet repertoire from the beginning of the 20th Century right up to the present day. Members of the Quartet introduced each of the seven pieces they were to play starting with Trois pièces pour quatuor à cordes by Stravinsky (1914) composed just after he had unleashed the “scandal” of the Rite of Spring in Paris.

The three pieces for string quartet and the following works, Sechs Bagatellen für Streichquartett by Anton Webern which we were about to hear mark a radical break with the form and sound worlds of the conventional String Quartet. It had of course changed radically since the time of Haydn but in a smoother and more gradual way. It is perhaps rather odd that these works by Stravinsky, Webern and Charles Ives are still regarded as shockingly avant garde by many audiences although they are now more than one hundred years old.

The first big difference with what had gone before was that these pieces are very short. Sonata form which was at the core of earlier pieces was gone and both Stravinsky and Webern use string sounds which if they ever occurred in earlier works did so in tiny fragments and not all together.

Although brevity is something that both Stravinsky’s and Webern’s music have in common, their music is nevertheless very different. Rhythmic repetition runs through Stravinsky’s music. Percussive playing not just in the use of pizzicato but in violent bowing techniques colour Stravinsky’s music. Echos of his writing of ballet scores such as The Firebird and Le Sacre appear in these pieces. The third has melodic lines and harmonies quite reminiscent of the opening of Le Sacre. The Bozzini Quartet gave a highly charged and exciting performance of these pieces.

Webern’s Six Bagatelles are much shorter even than Stravinsky’s pieces. They must have surprised audiences of their time. String sounds not often heard before in quartet writing are used and there is no repetition at all. These six pieces are very different and as we were told, they are like little jewels in sound. Completely abstract and very highly polished and shaped, the Bozzini players lived up to what Webern had wanted.

The Scherzo from the String Quartet No. 2 by Charles Ives demonstrated the astonishing ideas of this composer. All sorts of fragments of well known tunes emerge from the music. Did Ives intend these to be funny? He certainly got laughs from today’s audience when surprising tunes suddenly emerged from what could be thought of as cacophony – something that Ives wanted to create quite deliberately. Actually his music is much more apposite in our world where all sorts of music is easily available and can sometimes even be hard to get away from in stores, from passing cars at the dentist or in the doctors waiting room for example.

On to some forty years later and we reach the astonishing sound worlds of John Cage compared with whom Ives can seem quite conventional. The second movement of his String Quartet in Four Parts represented autumn. Relatively sparse and as we were told quite transparent this music seemed to put the intrinsic qualities of sounds at the top of the list of importance. It was actually a rather luminous piece as played by the Bozzini Quartet.

Morton Feldman was a pioneer of what has been called “indeterminate” music. Structures (1951) lived up to its name. Even sparser than John Cage’s music, we were moved through a succession of distinct musical patterns with silences between them. The silences themselves became an intrinsic part of the music. Some of the patterns were repetitive even mechanical. Could this music have contained the seeds of what later became minimalism? The performance by the Bozzini Quartet projected what I felt was a sensation of cleanliness.

Brian Ferneyhough’s Adagissimo had as we were told many more notes in it. This had something of the abstract quality of Webern’s music but while Webern gave us clarity and transparency this music was far thicker or richer in sound. A strong, extrovert and dare I say masculine piece.

The final piece in the programme brought us right up to date. Kangaroo by the German born Canadian composer Michael Oesterle was composed this very summer. It was also the longest piece in the programme. There was a sensation of leaping in the music possibly representing the kangaroo? There were passages that suggested minimalism as well as a kind of searching for a voice within a more conventional tonal sound palette. Towards the end of the piece Clemens Merkel’s lead violin had an almost jazzy quality to it.

This was a superb “taster menu” of all the varied dishes that are on offer within the modern and contemporary string quartet repertoire.

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