north east scotland's festival of new music

press reviews

The Smith Quartet

Written by Alan Cooper


Was it a good idea to programme all five of the extant string quartets by Philip Glass in a single afternoon concert? Yes, absolutely! These works are so different from one another that this idea provided a wonderfully illuminating panorama of the composer's relationship with minimalism. The name Philip Glass has become almost synonymous with minimalist music in the popular mind – and Glass is indeed one of the most popular of contemporary classical composers.

The Smith Quartet is one of the finest exponents of this music and many in Sunday's audience had travelled far just to hear them play music that has become a favourite for them.

The Quartets were not performed in chronological order but this turned out to highlight the contrasting characteristics and moods of the five works. The Smith Quartet began with String Quartet No. 3 "MISHIMA. In this work minimalism is fully developed and contributes a great deal to establishing the flavour of the work. Moments when the players had more salient melodic passages stood out in splendid profile, exemplified by Darragh Morgan's silky contribution to the final movement.

String Quartet No. 1 was more open textured with passages for individual instruments or combinations in higher relief and the overall harmonic and melodic writing was much more "modernist" if not really atonal.

In contrast, String Quartet No.4 "BUCKZAC" was decidedly romantic with often luscious tone playing from the Smith Quartet underlining this impression. There were particularly beautiful melodic outpourings from the two violins underlined by the gentle murmurings of the viola and cello, and then in the final movement these roles were reversed with the lower instruments taking the lead in singing out while the violins fluttered gently above them.

String Quartet No. 2 "Company" had four rather short movements in which the material matched itself nicely almost as if each movement was a variation on what had gone before.

The final work, String Quartet No. 5 seemed to be the one which fitted in most comfortably within the more traditional canons of string quartet writing. There was considerably more contrast both between movements and within them and a more traditional sense of development was unrolled as the work progressed. It seemed that here minimalism had become another mode of expression albeit an important one along with many other musical ideas. In listening to all of these works together we got the sense of the composer's journey from emerging minimalism in the first quart to a kind of post minimalism in the fifth. It was a fascinating journey and the Smith Quartet was the best possible guide to take us down this particular road.

  • published on 24 October 2010
  • written by Alan Cooper

Reproduced with permission of the author.

reviewed event
  Date Day Time Location Event Details
24Sun 2.00 pmBanchorySmith Quartet