north east scotland's festival of new music

press reviews

The Smith Quartet

Written by Alan Cooper


Red Note passed the baton of the Sound Festival's "minimalist inspired weekend" to another top flight ensemble of contemporary music specialists, the Smith Quartet. They performed music by Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman for Thursday's Lunchbreak audience in the Cowdray Hall.

Although some members of that audience were not sure initially about what they were going to hear, the white hot energy and astonishing precision of the performance had everybody won over, talking with lively enthusiasm about the music as they left the hall after the concert.

It was fascinating to witness the varied strategies used by the two composers to develop fresh ideas of form within minimalist boundaries which would allow them to create relatively well integrated large scale works.

The String Quartet No. 1 by Gavin Bryars "Between the National and the Bristol" used two easily recognisable musical ideas to bind the work together: a kind of rocking motif set against longer sustained notes. As the music moved to a livelier tempo and a harder edged attack, those two ideas were still there although transformed to match one another nicely. Arpeggiated passages and a kind of repeated scalar motif also served to bind the music together later on. Towards the end of the work the rocking motif reappeared on the cello. The colours of the music were completely changed as the music progressed even coming to suggest the ethereal atmosphere of the finale of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. The composer asks some of the players to retune strings during the course of the work so that harmonics can be used for the finale. I recall one of the young composers in the University Music Prize asking for this. The player in question made a comment to me that cannot be printed, but for the Smith Quartet, this was all in the days work and it was achieved almost imperceptibly. This was ample proof of a technical prowess that illuminated their entire performance.

The Quartet by Gavin Bryars received a wonderfully lively and intense performance and the playing hotted up even further with the String Quartet No. 2 by Michael Nyman.

Here exciting rhythm and dance were well to the fore. Although inspired by Indian dance forms Indian music as such was present in the six movements only as a distant echo. Nyman is creating new forms and ideas here rather as Dvořák's "traditional" Bohemian melodies are mostly his own work. The vigorous opening movement was almost jazzy in its impact while the splendid off-centre rhythms of the cello in the second did remind me of tabla drumming. The third movement featured luscious melodic playing by the viola which was then passed on to the first violin. The unison passages for violin and cello in the fourth movement did suggest something of Indian song while the fifth movement provided some splendid double stopping, busy playing on the upper strings and infectious syncopations from the cellist.

The final movement presented rich harmonies and even more energetic playing with the cellist plucking at her strings with considerable abandon and flair. For those who think that minimalism "sounds all the same" this concert was a fantastic wake up call.

  • published on 21 October 2010
  • written by Alan Cooper

Reproduced with permission of the author.

relevant events
  Date Day Time Location Event Details
21Thu12.45 pmAberdeenSmith Quartet