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CD Feature/ The Smith Quartet: "Philip Glass - Complete String Quartets"

img  Tobias

Most contemporary composers would of course sell a kidney, their soul or anything else they'd remotely consider dispensable for a discography the size of Philip Glass'. And yet, alternative interpretations of his pieces – barring a few, albeit noticeable exceptions - have remained a rarity. The reasons for this lack in creative plurality are clearly closer connected to market forces than musical fortes and they are by no means restricted to obscure material. After all, you'd expect a genre like the String Quartet, which Glass has kept coming back to throughout his entire career, to be represented by more than the handful of available renditions the status quo has on offer. The composer himself has indicated that the format implicitely forced him to come up with „the most serious, significant piece“ possible and some of the tracks at hand have even made it to movie theaters. Still, apart from various  samplers containing one or two of the quartets, the Kronos' interpretation has been the only dedicated recording on the market for over ten years – and it was incomplete, skipping number one.

Subtle and Spectacular
Disregarding whatever Glass-cynics may and undoubtedly will say about this 2CD set, then, the Smith Quartet have closed an important gap simply by releasing it. Their takes allow for a deeper appreciation of the works and for a true discussion to take place at all. Comparison will lead to new insights, new insights will lead to fresh inspiration: The music is free again to be celebrated and cursed for its own, intrinsic value rather than the idiosyncratic gestures and visions of one particular version.

Thanks to the occasionally subtle and sometimes downright spectacular nuances and differences of these two interpretations, you can tell them apart right from the very first note. The Smith Quartet's timbres are warmer, brighter, more oppulent and panoramic than the Kronos Quartet's, their tempi less radical. Their group sound appears more synthetical and sympathetic compared to  the latter's analytical and artfully afflicted approach. While the Kronos crew seemed to head for a cohesive, unified production for all quartets, the Smiths are now treating each one as a world in its own right. Both have their validity and it remains a question of disposition which version you will enjoy more. But it is certainly easier to fall in love with the radiating glow of these new performances than with the cool, seductive glimmer of their classic counterparts.

Anticipating Feldman
Also, with all quartets now finally integrally available (except the first three, which were later withdrawn and may never see the light of day again), one finally has a chance of gauging Glass' contribution to the genre and the way his take on the format has changed as his style has discreetly morphed over the years. Even without this birds eye view, however, the first String Quartet is an exciting addition to the catalogue. Ridden by youthful Angst, driven by sensations of solitude and stagnancy and anticipating Feldman's Quartet in mood and motivic language, the piece is composed of a drastically reduced set of themes constantly on the verge of collapsing into themselves. Tonal material is minimal as well, with melodies futily flapping their wings, before falling down again. Enigmatically, both movements are essentially made up of the same building blocks, with the second one merely a phaseshifted reprise of the first. As a listener, you're constantly searching for the centre of this plaintive time bubble, paradoxically looking out for something to hold on to in a piece which seems utterly simplistic on paper. Adding a two-minute theatrical pause in between its two segments, a past practise as the booklet points out, seems like a strong suggestion to further its intense impact.

The Smith Quartet are treating the ensuing, more well-known compositions with the same care and attention for detail. They bring out the suprising versatility of the compact second String Quartet, the uplifting emotional electricity of the third and the heartfelt pain of the fourth. And they present the fifth as a congruent dream of consolation, weaving an interleaved web of references and reoccurrances. On this piece, Glass has not only added a highly interesting contribution to the String Quartet canon in general, but established a voluble new vocabulary for himself as well, using his typical rhythmic stirrings as points of departure for tender melodies and versatile harmonic variations over propulsive one-note bass lines.

A sad aftertaste
If the Kronos Quartet emphasised the similarities between these pieces, the Smith Quartet have now highlighted their unique personalities. Listening to them in chronological order, of course, still makes sense and brings out interesting lines of development: Almost frosty ambient textures start budging,  floating, drifting and dancing until they finally arrive a state where all elements are interconnected and everything is possible. The fact that this edition eschews following this timeline, going for a musically oriented order instead, is a disappointment – albeit the only one with regards to an otherwhise delectable presented set. If there is still a somewhat sad aftertaste to it, then this is only because Glass has apparently decided to call it quits after arguably hitting a high with his fifth quartet. And yet, by power of their musical empathy and emotive musicianship, the Smith Quartet have effectively demonstrated that there is enough still to be discovered in what he has already given to us.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: The Smith Quartet
Homepage: Signum Records

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