Sunday 30 April 2017

Creative re-imaginings: Mark Bowler's Quartet for Strings

Mark Bowler - Quartet for Strings
Mark Bowler Quartet for Srings; Ligeti Quartet; One Glass Eye Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 13 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Folk inspirations from the UK and from Bulgaria in this striking quartet by the young British composer

I first came across Mark Bowler's work when his piece Fother-Jiggen was premiered by the choir of Selwyn College, conductor Mark Bawtree, at JAM's recent concert. This disc contains Bowler's Quartet for Strings played by the Ligeti Quartet on One Glass Eye Records.

The quartet is in the traditional four movements, but their titles indicate a somewhat distinctive take on the quartet repertoire, Kopanitsa, The Jigs & The Reels, Ayre, and Plovdiv Dance / Rachenitsa. The work was premiered by the Ligeti Quartet in November 2016, and this disc was recorded in January 2017. A little research indicates that Kopanitsa is the name of a group of lively folk-dances from Western Bulgaria, whilst Rachenitsa is also a distinctive group of Bulgarian folk-dances, and of course Plovdiv is the second largest city in Bulgaria.

Mark Bowler
Mark Bowler
Mark Bowler studied Music Composition & Professional Practice at Coventry University under Martin Riley and Adrian Palka, and following graduation continued to work with Palka using Robert Rutman's sculpture-instruments (the Bow Chimes and Steel Cello). A strong interest in folk-musics also seems to be part of his background (his piece for JAM was based on a traditional shepherd's counting song). So this disc, exploring folk traditions of the British Isles and of Bulgaria seems entirely appropriate, yet also rather striking.

The first thing to say is that there is nothing pastiche-y about Bowler's writing, whilst the four movements clearly have an underlying folk influence, in the rhythmic and melodic motifs, the over all sound world is Bowler's own.

Kopanitsa is very rhythmic, with an intense, dark texture with a dancing high violin line. Structurally it feels like a set of variations, a familiar folk procedure, but Bowler throws in some lovely textures, including splashy pizzicatos, slides and harmonics, to create his own sound word. You wonder how close the music is to the Bulgarian dance, but listening to the second movement, The Jigs & The Reels, enables you to tell that Bowler is highly creative in his use of his folk-material. This movement uses the same sound-world as the first, but still with a sense of jigs and reels in the rhythms. The result is dramatic and striking, and a long way from Percy Grainger. Ayre has long a sustained feel with the middle parts moving, and this movement turns gradually into the melodic and harmonic basis of the piece. Finally we return to Bulgaria for the last movement, with plucked cello contrasting with rhythmic strings, eventually turning into a toe-tapping folk-dance.

I enjoyed this disc, and found it a creative re-imagining of folk-music; Mark Bowler is certainly a young talent to watch out for.  The work receives a superb performance from the Ligeti Quartet, the recording clearly benefiting from the group's live performance of the work.

The rather striking artworks on the disc's slipcover are by Bowler himself.

Mark Bowler (born 1980) - String Quartet [23.50]
Ligeti Quartet (Mandhira de Saram, Patrick Dawkings, Richard Jones, Val Welbanks)
Recorded 13 January 2017, at Soup Studio, London
Available from One Glass Eye Records.

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