Highly strung

Guitar quartet handles gruelling and unusual compositions with aplomb

Maybe a whole repertoire exists for an ensemble of four guitars, but before this disc came my way I had never heard any modern music with this scoring.

GEORG FRIEDRICH HAAS Quartet For Four Guitars; BEAT FURRER: Fragmentos De Un Libre Futuro; MANUEL HIDALGO: [Kampftanz]; HELMUT OEHRING: Mich. Stille; MARKUS HECHTLE: Linie Mit Schraffur. Petra Hoffmann (soprano, in the Furrer), Ernesto Molinari (clarinet, in the Hechtle), Aleph Guitar Quartet. NEOS CD 11208

Since the pieces were all written by composers known for very progressive styles the programme promised to be interesting, at least from the standpoint of technique. They were certain to experiment with new ways of making music with an instrument that, in classical music, has been used in intriguing new ways by composers like Berio, Carter and Boulez, but that more often is typecast.

All five of the pieces on this programme were composed for the ensemble who perform them here, the Aleph Guitar Quartet, who worked closely with the composers in shaping the performances on the disc. Given the gruelling and unusual demands each of them makes on the ensemble, this cooperative approach must have been valuable to the performers.

These demands are especially extreme in the case of Georg Friedrich Haas' Quartet For Four Guitars (2007), which employs the Wyschnegradsky-derived microtonal language that the composer has been developing over the past several years. He wrote it three years before completing his astonishing Limited Approximations (2010), a concerto for six pianos tuned one-twelfth of one tone apart and orchestra, discussed in this column a few months ago. The quartet makes use of some of the same ideas heard in Limited Approximations and begins similarly, with rapid swirling figures, played by the four guitars, very much like the ones played by the six pianos at the opening of the concerto.

The microscopic divergences in tuning, and interference between the resulting tiny, twelfth-tone intervals it produces, creates a shimmering effect that the composer refers to as "singing", a term that will have to do until someone comes up with a better way to describe it. Within a minute, this turbulent surface collects itself into a series of chords whose microtonal harmony is so complex that the ear, or at least my ear, does not know what to do with them except to enjoy their exotic beauty.

As with Limited Approximations, the spirit of Gyorgy Ligeti hovers over this music, more obviously in some passages than in others. In the concerto it is the shifting clouds of sound in the opening movement that underline the link. Here, most prominently, it is the loud strata of repeated chords played in conflicting tempos and rhythms (beginning in this recording at 9:17), so striking when Ligeti introduced the idea in his 1970 Chamber Concerto but here sounding very, very borrowed. But overall, Haas' Quartet For Four Guitars is a work like no other, full of alluring harmonic enigmas that invite frequent hearings. Listeners hesitant to invest in this expensive disc can see the Aleph Guitar Quartet perform it on YouTube.

The remaining four pieces on the programme are less compelling than the Haas, but each is interesting in its own way. The most immediately attractive of them is also the most conventional, Manuel Hidalgo's [Kampftanz] _ the very self-conscious brackets are part of the title. It is full of harsh and brittle sonorities and strong percussive effects, but rhythm is strong, with dynamic flamenco-like episodes, so that the Tanz, or dance in the title does connect to the music. But the significance of those brackets, and the reference to Kampf _ struggle _ that makes up the other half of the title is something that listeners will have to figure out for themselves.

Those of us who come into contact with contemporary classical music primarily through recordings _ there aren't many other options in Bangkok _ may have formed a high opinion of the work of the Austrian composer Beat Furrer through some of the compositions, like his remarkable piano concerto, issued by the Kairos label. Fragmentos De Un Libre Futuro, recorded here, is less impressive, harking back to techniques reminiscent of the 1960s avant-garde.

As a setting of the poem Fragments Of A Future Book by the Spanish poet Jose Angel Valente, it attempts to allow the vocal line (sung with great virtuosity by soprano Petra Hoffmann) and the four-guitar accompaniment to interpenetrate by inviting them to borrow each other's timbre and expressive techniques.

"The singer is asked to touch on the consonants exactly in the same way that the guitarists are instructed to render their pizzicato as ominous clanging and the players [are allowed] to interpret the poetic imagery, for example the falling leaves, for themselves," Bernd Kuenzig writes in his notes to the programme.

An interesting idea, but hard to discern in performance unless informed in advance by the printed note, and in any case not particularly responsive to the melancholy tone of the Valente poem which, at least in the translation provided, contains no explicit reference to falling leaves.

Still, the piece has held up better through repeated hearings than Helmut Oehring's Mich. Stille. This odd hybrid, in which the jittery and eruptive music played by the four guitarists is accompanied by a tape of various unsettling vocal sounds _ primarily a woman's laboured breathing _ is described as "filmic music performed without the presence of a film" in the notes. The missing movie is obviously a horror film, culminating in a chase or some other form of violence. But the music, at least for me, achieves no feeling of narrative, and even at 11 minutes it goes on too long. Schoenberg, scoring a non-existent horror film of his own in his Accompaniment To A Film Scene, brought the same thing off to sweaty perfection in almost two minutes less, and he was writing for a full orchestra.

The concluding piece on the programme, Markus Hechtle's Linie Mit Schraffur (Line With Shading) is more satisfying. The line of the title is an uninterrupted strummed texture that constantly changes timbre, texture and intensity. The shading provided by these shifts is enhanced by a solo clarinet that assaults the guitar music, dances around it, responds to it and ornaments it in different ways, many of them surprising. Clarinetist Ernesto Molinari brings out some of his instrument's most brilliant colours. A gripping piece, and one that could inspire a choreographer.

I bought my copy of this disc online from amazon.co.uk. As far as I know, no legitimate downloadable version is available. The recorded sound is excellent.

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Writer: Ung-Aang Talay
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