Fitzwilliam String Quartet: String Quartets 1 & 2 and Piano Quintet

Michael Blake Edition - MBED002 - Compact disc - 2012
The Fitzwilliam String Quartet
*Michael Blake piano

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Michael Blake Edition 002

Michael Graubart, Tempo, April 2013

The three substantial pieces on this CD are some of the most uncompromisingly individual chamber works of recent years. As chamber music for string quartet and piano quintet, the background against which they stand out is inevitably European, though most of the composers that Blake lists as providing models for his first venture into the string quartet medium are predominantly Eastern European; thus, standing at an angle to the main axis of contemporary Western European chamber music and, moreover, influenced by the sound-world and syntax of traditional African musics, they surprise and impress as much by what they do not do as by what they do.

Blake’s music is essentially diatonic, sometimes pentatonic or modal, but eschews conventionally-functional harmonic progressions and proceeds by way of ostinato-like repetition, variation, overlapping or not-quite-synchronous rhythmic figures, sudden silences, unexpected contrasts and equally unexpected varied returns to earlier material. Its sound and textures are vivid and clear, sometimes harsh. There are no rhetorical cadence gestures; when the music has said enough, it stops.

Anyone for a moment thinking of American minimalism at the beginning of the first String Quartet of 2001 — repetitive, harmonically static, made almost exclusively of the notes G and D — will very soon be disabused of that misconception. The work is in two movements, and the composer suggests that the first, marked ‘Chirpy’, but often loud and assertive and not at all suggestive of bird-song, is more ‘African’, its persistent pizzicati suggestive of lute and harp; while the second is more ‘European’, permeated by the sound of the seventeenth-century viol consort, though more densely homophonic and sometimes heterophonic than polyphonic. That second movement begins, as the composer says in the foreword to the score, with two brief hints of a scherzo (remains of an original three-movement plan), separated and then movingly overcome by a deeply-felt slow lament, an elegy for the composer’s close friend William Burton, the two parts being related by rising scale fragments and extended slow upward-striving scales.

The second String Quartet (2006), written in three weeks during a residency in Gotland, is in a single, extended movement. It begins with relentlessly dissonant, fortissimo, dense, fourth- and fifth-saturated eleven-note chords separated by rests. One instrument or another gets out of step, the rests become shorter, small motivic figures, many consisting of melodic rising and falling legato thirds, appear. Blake tells us that this music is inspired by the Tshikona dance of the Venda people. The music fragments, with long silences. Then a mysterious passage with falling glissando melodic thirds, marked ‘Teneramente’, gives way suddenly at the precise midpoint of the work’s 20-minute duration to a short, dance-like scherzando section with a distinctly Czech flavour. A passage of quiet, sustained chords with crescendi is followed by music that freely varies the ideas of the opening; then the crescendo chords return in an extended, extremely slow section delightfully marked ‘Balticamente’ in tribute to the seascape against which the quartet was composed. More variants of earlier and related material are interrupted by a return of the ‘Czech’ dance and the briefest of quiet codas. Compared to the first quartet, this work is motivically more organic and coherent, and in its chordal passages clear directional voice-leading can be heard. With its multinational references and contrasted but integrated material, this is a strikingly powerful and rich work.

The Piano Quintet is subtitled ‘Homage to Schumann’, and was written in the same year as the Second String Quartet, 2006, the 150th anniversary of Schumann’s death. Not that Blake’s music is Schumannesque; but, as Blake says, Schumann’s was the first work in the European canon for that combination (if one does not count Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet with its different string complement, and, before that, those three piano concertos that Mozart told his father could be played with quartet, though he might have just meant strings). Yet the first of the three movements, beginning with important falling C# – B and B – A motifs, is more continuous, motivically and texturally, than any in the string quartets. There is a repeated dance-like episode, and just before the end of the movement a delicately lyrical pentatonic phrase, beginning with the falling major second C# – B and rising by a minor seventh to A before falling to F#, sets up a connection to the slow second movement and creates much of that movement’s motivic, thematic and harmonic material.

This, in D like the first movement, begins with the same C# – B motif. Then the first violin, beginning with a rising minor seventh (E – D), plays a very beautiful, sustained melodic phrase, diatonic, this time, not pentatonic, that rises to a high A. The whole movement inhabits a dreamy, gently nostalgic world, despite (or perhaps even because of) the prevalence of high string harmonics, which it is hard not to call Romantic; towards the end even some quiet, sustained spread piano chords put in a surprising appearance.

The mood is broken, attacca, by the extremely short scherzando third movement. Though there are no overt motivic references to the previous movements, its material consisting largely of rapid repeated-note figurations (with chords alternating between strings and piano at a speed that makes them very hard to bring off) and scale-fragments, the rising arpeggios that appear very soon are rooted on a low D and the movement functions as a harmonically stabilizing coda to the whole quintet.

The performances of all three works on this disk are committed and masterly. The first String Quartet was written for, and is dedicated to, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet and the Piano Quintet was premièred by them, with Michael Blake himself the pianist, as he is on the CD, so all the performers are familiar with and attuned to Blake’s music. The recording is excellent: close microphone placement creates the clarity, brilliance and vividness of attack that the music demands, but there is just enough low-level reverberation to create a live acoustic and prevent the predominantly staccato sounds from becoming too dry and dissociated from one another.

Wayne Muller, Die Burger, Cape Town, 7 April 2013

Drie werke van die Suid-Afrikaanse komponis Michael Blake word op dié album deur die fantastiese Fitzwilliam-strykkwartet uitgevoer – Blake se Strykkwartet no. 1 en no. 2, asook sy Kwintet vir Klavier en Strykers, met die komponis self agter die klavier.

Die eerste strykkwartet se eerste beweging, getitel “Chirpy”, is opgeruimd en herinner aan ander eietydse plaaslike komposisies wat die land en sy landskap verklank – iets wat moeilik in woorde beskryf kan word.

Om na die tweede strykkwartet te luister is ’n interessante ervaring, hoewel die aanhoudende herhalings dalk nie by alle luisteraars byval sal vind nie.

Wat hierdie luisteraar die meeste geïmponeer het, is die kwintet (met die subtitel “Homage to Schumann”). Die liriese aard daarvan trek ’n mens in, met die opwindende ritmes wat ’n Afrika-omgewing oproep wat jou boei. Dié eietydse musiek sal nie noodwendig in alle luisteraars se smaak val nie, maar dit stem jou tot nadenke en met die weer luister vind jy telkens iets nuuts.

Three works by the South African composer Michael Blake are performed on this CD by the fantastic Fitzwilliam String Quartet – Blake’s String Quartet No 1 and No 2, as well as his Quintet for Piano and Strings, with the composer himself at the piano.

The first string quartet’s first movement, titled “Chirpy”, is cheerful and recalls other local contemporary compositions which resonate with the land and its landscape – something that is difficult to describe in words.

To listen to the second string quartet is an interesting experience, although the continual repetitions will perhaps not appeal to all listeners.

What impressed this listener most is the quintet (subtitled “Homage to Schumann”). Its lyrical nature draws one in, and the exciting rhythms that recall an African environment hold you. This contemporary music will not necessarily be to everyone’s taste, but it invites you to reflect and with repeated listening you find something new each time.