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Abrahamsen String Quartets – No 1, ‘10 Preludes’; No 2; No 3; No 4 Arditti Quartet Winter & Winter F 910 242-2 (68’ • DDD)

This backwardslooking survey of Hans Abrahamsen’s four string quartets,

starting with the most recent from 2012 and finishing with the 10 Preludes of 1973, fills a major gap in this elusive composer’s discography. The quartet is one of the few genres Abrahamsen has cultivated more than once, with the First recast for alternative instrumentations: string orchestra and, just last year, cello quartet.

Abrahamsen’s trademark pared-down textures and glacial-moving developments are immediately apparent in the opening ‘Light and airy’ movement of the Fourth Quartet, a static essay in pure harmonics. Each movement injects additional ingredients, tied together exhilaratingly in the ‘Gently rocking’ finale. Nominally in four movements, the brief Third (2008) – all 11 and a half minutes of it – is really a diptych with two brief introductions. The more substantial Second (1981), arguably his first for the medium proper, is an example of the strain of expressionism that runs as an undercurrent through his oeuvre.

The Arditti Quartet’s performances are clinical and virtuoso, revelling in the music’s exploratory qualities. It is instructive – and fascinating – to compare their version of No 1 with last year’s Gramophone Award-nominated recording from the Danish Quartet (coupled with early quartets by Nørgård and Adès). The Danish found more of the music behind the technical challenges (rendered immaculately) in an interpretation that is more satisfying expressively and warmer in tone. Both performances last for around 21 minutes but how they traverse that time is in places very different, especially in Prelude No 5, which under the Arditti’s bows is half as long again as from the Danish Quartet. That said, there is much to admire in the Arditti’s cooler playing;

their all-Abrahamsen programme is more attractive and, at 69’ as opposed to ECM’s paltry 47’, rather better value for money. Fine sound. Guy Rickards (5/18) String Quartet No 1 – comparative version: Danish Qt (6/16) (ECM) 481 2385

Bartók Complete String Quartets The Heath Quartet Harmonia Mundi M b HMM90 7661/2 (158’ • DDD)

This is a major release. Last year I heard The Heath Quartet play Bartók’s

Third Quartet in concert, and was struck not only by their obvious mastery of Bartók’s idiom but also by the exuberant sense of fantasy – indeed, joy – that they brought to the music. This complete cycle, recorded in May 2016 in the Wigmore Hall before the departure of their original second violinist, Cerys Jones, more than delivers on the promise of the group’s live performances and their Gramophone Award-winning Tippett cycle (Wigmore Hall Live, 3/16).

The Heaths follow the relatively recent interpretative approach (typified by the Emerson Quartet’s 1988 cycle) that views these works primarily as part of the classical tradition. Their playing isn’t as glossy, perhaps, as other recent entrants into this field, such as the Jerusalem Quartet, but they have a powerful understanding of the music’s structure, coupled to superlative technical skill. Sensibly, they don’t try to fake a Hungarian accent: instead, their awareness of the music’s roots is incorporated into a wider expressive language. In the first two quartets, for example, there’s a sort of Jugendstil curvaceousness – enhanced by Oliver Heath’s lustrous tone plus discreet ensemble portamentos – that places these works in the context of Austro-Hungarian late Romanticism. The peppery fiddle tune that launches the Scherzo of the Second Quartet buzzes with folky intensity but, crucially, keeps moving forwards.

In fact, I found myself repeatedly scribbling down the word ‘momentum’. Not necessarily in the sense of relentless energy

(though they can heat things up when they need to), but of an inevitable pull towards the culminating moment when a movement suddenly yields up its secrets. That makes for a powerfully vivid and focused account of the Third Quartet, and a Fifth Quartet that, not entirely predictably, comes across as the lightest of the set. But elsewhere, it’s devastating: the tear-stained climax of the first movement of the First Quartet, the sudden, poignant fade at the end of the first movement of the Sixth and the piercing stab of pain in that work’s closing bars. They play the impassioned solos of the Fourth’s central Non troppo lento relatively straight: the ardour grows from within, culminating in a final, misty vison of nocturnal stillness that is – no other word for it - magical.

It’s all captured by Harmonia Mundi in transparent and natural recorded sound which easily encompasses both the quietest sul ponticello whisper and (a Heath Quartet speciality) ringing full-ensemble chords that glow from within. Newcomers to the Bartók quartets will find this a sincere, imaginative and splendidly played entry point; old hands will quickly find 101 new reasons why these extraordinary works rank among the supreme achievements of 20th-century music. Richard Bratby (9/17) String Quartets – selected comparison: Emerson Qt (12/88R) (DG) 477 6322GGP2 Nos 2, 4 & 6 – selected comparison: Jerusalem Qt (12/16) (HARM) HMC90 2235

Brahms String Sextets – No 1, Op 18; No 2, Op 36 Renaud Capuçon, Christoph Koncz vns Gérard Chaussé, Marie Chilemme vas Gautier Capuçon, Clemens Hagen vcs Erato F 9029 58883-7 (77’ • DDD) Recorded live at the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud, Aix-en-Provence, March 24, 2016

It’s been some years since we’ve had a disc of Brahms’s sextets as thoroughly satisfying as this one, recorded live at the 2016 Aixen-Provence Easter Festival. The Capuçon brothers and their colleagues may be an ad hoc group but they play with the unanimity and blended tone of a veteran


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