English Contemporary composer Liz Johnson [born 1963] has written at least four string quartets and several short pieces for the genre. All are on the review 2-CD set. I am going to discuss String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3. These are not long works – she seems to save that character for some of the other chamber works on the set.
The Second Quartet, in three movements, is titled For Elliot. The work opens in an ethereal, pulsing manner, if that is not a contradiction in terms. The pulsing comes from a strong emphasis on the first beat of each bar, together with an eight to the bar motivic feeling. The ethereal is achieved by floating cloud-like chords over the basic rhythm. This tends to be of a minimalist nature, somewhat akin to Phillip Glass, however I find it to be much more interesting than that guru of minimalism. The combination of two contrasting feelings draws me in. Violin lines are interspersed within the wispy chords, generating an alluring melodic interest. The end of this short movement has a fade, which then gently builds to a moderately strong final chord.
The next movement is even shorter, just under two minutes, and has a completely different texture, consisting entirely of short violin jabs over a pizzicato accompaniment, no minimalism here. As the music unfolds, the violin lines give way to total pizzicato, and a glissando note to end.
The final movement again occupies a totally different soundspace. A somewhat murky cello offers up sporadic statements and the violins are more abstruse than anything heard thus far. A brief pause leads to a new passage, with very slow, sustained violin lines projecting a wonderfully peaceful feeling. A sense of moderate dissonance now prevails and the cello eventually joins the violins with strong lines, taking over from the violins, which now sustain a constant chord, leading to a stark conclusion.
The Third Quartet, in one movement, is titled Intricate Web. It features a fascinating, dynamic opening filled with dissonant long tones, interspersed with cello utterances. I find this section to be one of pure abstraction, with neither a pulse nor harmony evident. This leads to a fragmented sound, as the violins drift mysteriously over a backdrop of string sound effects. Shrill violin glissandi contrast with a bleak cello. Now the violins become more expressive but the sense of abstraction still prevails. A pause allows the music to return at a decreased intensity and texture for a time before it gradually builds again. Glissandi and pizzicato combine in a sparse passage which intensifies with a more powerful approach from the violins and the whole ensemble lifts in support. This doesn’t last and the music drops back to one violin offering up a series of random exclamations which dissolve into nothing.
This is another fine abstract soundspace that has only recently come to my attention – it’s my kind of music and I find it somewhat reminiscent of Andrea Tarrodi’s work. I should also mention that the disc is based around the talents of the much treasured Fitzwilliam Quartet.
The two CDs also contains two fine, extended chamber works, a three-part Cello Suite and a one-movement Clarinet Quintet. These make for a wonderful set.
The review CD, titled Intricate Web, on the Divine Art label is available on Amazon US and UK.
Listenability: Great Contemporary mix.