Wednesday 15 November 2017

The contemporary string quartet: Borusan Quartet in Pärt, Uçarsu, Glass, Vasks

Company - Borusan Quartet - Onyx
Arvo Pärt, Hasan Uçarsu, Philip Glass, Pēteris Vasks; The Borusan Quartet; Onyx Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 10 2017 Star rating: 4.5
Contemporary music for quartet from a Turkish ensemble makes for thoughtful and intense listening

The Borusan Quartet (Esen Kıvrak, Olgu Kızılay, Efdal Altun, Çağ Erçağ) is a Turkish ensemble founded in 2005. On this new disc from Onyx Classics the quartet explores four contemporary works for string quartet, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's Summa, Turkish composer Hasan Uçarsu's String Quartet No. 2 'The Untold', American composer Philip Glass's String Quartet no. 2 'Company' and Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks's String Quartet No.4. In these four works we get four different contemporary approaches to the idea of the string quartet and what it means to today's composers.

Arvo Pärt's Summa was originally a setting for four voices of the Latin 'Credo', but in 1991 he produced a version of the work for string quartet. Recognisably Pärt in tinntinabuli style, the quartet bring out the vibrant polyphony of the music rather than its beautiful surface in a highly thoughtful performance.

Hasan Uçarsu's String Quartet No. 2 'The Untold' is a four movement work where the middle two movements form the core of the piece, with the first and last forming something of a prologue and epilogue, the one the mirror image of the other. The opening 'Prologue' combines dramatic pizzicato with a high, rather insistent violin part, the result is highly dramatic almost filmic.
The second movement, 'Bozlak', is in memory of the Turkish musician Neset Ertas who died in 2012, it uses a Turkish folk-song form the bozlak. The music starts with a dramatic unison and the movement builds out of this material. Again I felt the music, with its varied textures, was quite filmic, and whilst aware of the strong identity of the underlying material the music is anything but folkloric.  The third movement 'Karsilama' represents the Hidrellez festivities which are held on the 6 May to celebrate the coming of summer. Here we have lively textures, crisp sometimes hard-driven rhythms with strongly accented music. The 'Epilogue' was written in memory of the cellist Reyent Bolukbasi who died in 2012, here there are eerie harmonics over a cello part which moves from murmuring to soulful. This is a striking piece which manages to create a Turkish musical identity within the context of the classical string quartet.

Philip Glass's second string quartet was originally written in 1983 as music to accompany a stage adaptation of Samuel Beckett's novel Company. The opening movement starts with an incessant yet gentle rhythm, notable for the wide spacing of the instrumental lines. A faster, more classic Philip Glass texture follows in the second movement, with more insistent drama in the third, and faster rhythms in the fourth with a rather exciting rhythmic undertow. The work finishes abruptly as if we were to imagine it continuing for ever.

Pēteris Vasks' String quartet no. 4 was written in 1999 for the Kronos Quartet and dedicated to the composer's mother to mark her 90th birthday.  In five movements, the middle three are a remarkable sequence of two toccatas with a choral in the middle. The opening movement 'Elegy' uses folk-ish material but in a spare and rather intriguing way to create something quiet and thoughtful. 'Toccata I' is dramatic and vibrant, almost driven, whilst 'Choral' is lyrical and intense developing through a long arc to a climax. 'Toccata II' is similarly driven but there are intense, scherzo like moments and you think of Shostakovich's quartets her. Quiet returns with the final 'Meditation', but certainly no let up in intensity as a high violin solo keens of gently murmurings. Vasks explains 'I saw an angel flying over the world; the angel looks at the world's condition with grieving eye, but an almost imperceptible, loving touch of the angel's wings brings comfort and healing'. Though I have to confess that I found the music slightly less comfortable than Vasks description implies, with something disturbing in the quiet, achieved with remarkable intensity by the quartet.

The quartet is supported by Borusan Sanat, the foundation which does so much to support Western classical music in Turkey. The four players all originally played in the foundation's orchestra, the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra.

The quartet has created a rather striking and thoughtful programme, each composer's work is different and each is approached with seriousness and intensity by the quartet. Definitely a disc for those interested in the contemporary approaches to the string quartet, and from an ensemble which brings a different focus to the music.

Arvo Pärt (born 1935) - Summa

 Hasan Uçarsu (born 1965) - String Quartet No. 2 'The Untold'
Philip Glass (born 1937) - String Quartet no. 2 'Company'
Pēteris Vasks (born 1946) - String Quartet No.4
Borusan Quartet (Esen Kıvrak, Olgu Kızılay, Efdal Altun, Çağ Erçağ) 
Recorded at Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh
ONYX 4171 1CD [63.46]
Available from Amazon.
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