American Contemporary composer Michael G Cunningham [born 1937] has written at least seven string quartets. The first seven are contained in a 2-CD set which features collectively, five highly regarded international ensembles on the recordings. It is worth noting that all of the movements in these works are relatively brief, mostly in the three to four minute range. I am going to discuss two works from the CD.

String Quartet No. 3, from 1975, is titled Partitions and is in four movements.

I -Quarter note = circa 70 – The work opens in a twitchy, nervous mood with atonal musings from all four instruments, and is pleasantly abstract albeit quite restrained. The violins express various discordant melodies but they never seem to rise above the cello and viola which have prominent roles in this soundscape. Nearing the end the intensity of the violins lifts before the music just peters out.

II – The four strings enter in turn in a slightly dissonant, although impassioned manner, with a sustained section of held notes. Moving from a relatively static opening, the violins become more animated, although the underlying feeling is ever-present. Now they become searing for a time, before the cello briefly intervenes. The violins rise again and their timbres clash as the movement again just fades into nothingness.

III – This movement is a solo performance by a pizzicato violin, with occasional, also pizzicato interjections. If there is a melody here, I can’t find it. I can however hear some pizzicato cello lines being introduced, along with plenty of glissando. As I have often stated, I am not fond of pizzicato and find this to be quite tedious.

IV – The final movement opens with one pizzicato note, which seems to hang over from the previous passage. The work progresses in a similar manner to the first movement, with again, a fascinating feeling of tonal ambiguity and gentle abstraction. For those interested in such sounds, this is a fine moment. All instruments briefly and gently move into their upper registers and the end is gentle, with soft glissandi in the background.

String Quartet No. 5, titled Aggregates, is from 1988 and consists of three movements, all with composer markings.

I – Zestful – The opening has a texture similar to the previously discussed work, with a slightly more serious tenor. It soon moves into a brief animated section, then drops back for a time until an intensity returns. This doesn’t last either and it seems to be that this movement is a case of constant contrast. Out of one serious section comes some strongly rhythmic bowed violins, which again is followed by a brief bout of introspection. Finally a shrill sustained violin tone signals the end.

IILanguid – A gentle passage with beautifully lamenting ensemble sounds is wonderfully expressive. I am glad that there are still people writing this kind of measured abstraction – I find it to be particularly pleasing. The intensity briefly rises before dropping back to the opening mood and languid it is. One violin concludes with a most wonderful tone.

III –  Spirited – An urgency, which has not been heard thus far, introduces this final movement. There is even a harmonised melodic section, which is also new. This turns into a stilted violin passage, somewhat akin to the actions of a mime artist. Now pulsing violins move into a rhythmic pizzicato. These sections are all rather brief, which seems to be a trait of the composer. After several false endings, it’s all over.

I find the diversity of this music to be very appealing, although it is a very modern sound. The composer’s other music seems quite eclectic, a term I don’t usually care for. It seems to be mostly meaningless after the 1960s, when all kinds of music became readily available.

The review 2-CD set, titled An Arc of Quartets, on the Navona label, was released in 2017 and appears to be deleted. The set is freely available as an MP3 download from many sources and new copies can still be had on eBay for reasonable prices.

The set is on Spotify, and all works can be heard on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Interesting, non-confronting modern work.


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