British composer Simon Bainbridge [1952–2021] wrote two string quartets. The Second Quartet traverses a maze of strange sounds which I find to be extremely satisfying. Having no apparent structure the work, in one movement, roams far and wide.

The piece opens with a violin flourish, and a response from the ensemble – there is no tempo evident. This episode of call and response is repeated several times. The violin now makes an abstract assertion with a second violin pizzicato style. A quivering section has further call and response with seemingly random interjections – this is a fascinating moment. The first violin is more to the front, swooping and sweeping with the ensemble supplying thick textures in support. So far there is no sign of a recognisable melody, it is pure sound.

The next passage features long tones and glissando from the first violin and the ensemble are very powerful in their responses, the cello being particularly strong. An episode with all instruments playing in pizzicato gradually develops. Atonal parries are effective and slightly Feldmanesque.

A sudden burst of activity is filled with string sound effects, and sporadic moments of cohesion. The pizzicato returns and the cello is rather shocking in its intensity. The cello moves to the front and delivers a searing passage, while the violins drift in and out. Upon reflection, there is a good deal of a conversational nature prevailing. The cello continues to lead the ensemble with atonal thrusts.

Now a new section unfolds with a sustained violin tone leading to a period of sparsity, albeit still in a call and response manner. This comes across as a rumbling feeling and I strain to hear the instruments. The mood is broken by a strong cello presence in the ensemble. A quite aggressive turn doesn’t last, quickly returning to a conversation

As we approach the end, there has been precious little melody to speak of. An agitated passage, replete with pizzicato and glissandos leads to an abrupt ending.

The following Bainbridge quote is from YouTube:

The first time I encountered the artist Julie Mehretu’s work I was irresistibly drawn into a labyrinth of radiant colours and textures, which, when seen from different perspectives, caused a musical environment to unfold in my head. I have always been influenced by art, possibly because my parents were both artists, and will often go to an art gallery to find inspiration or solutions to musical problems or sticking points. The combination of colour, shape, design, texture, perspective and drama in a painting will inevitably engender a counterpart in a musical landscape in my head, which will begin to unfold given the visual impetus of a great work of art. My second string quartet is one such piece, inspired by Julie Mehretu’s work, and I should like to dedicate this performance of it to the memory of my father, the Australian-born artist John Bainbridge.

And that just about sums it up. There is more sound than music in this work.

The review CD titled Bainbridge: Chamber Music, is performed by the Kreutzer Quartet on the Toccata Classics label. It also contains the First Quartet together with some other incidental works.

The CD is on Spotify and the works can be heard at earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Difficult, but thrilling listening.


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