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They opened with Haydn’s Sunrise Quartet, which was sublime from its vibrato-less opening through the solemn stillness of the slow movement to the sense of mystery evoked in the modal-tinged Trio of the Minuet. And through the music was very different, Bartok’s magnificently fierce Third Quartet was delivered with a similar nobility, as well as tremendous precision.
To place a new work between these masterpieces was to measure it against giants. Yet, extraordinary as it may seem, Deirdre Gribbin’s What the Whaleship Saw seemed every bit as mesmerising as the Haydn or Bartok. In part that was due to the Symanowski’s performance. Rarely can a new quartet making such technical and expressive demands have been premiered with such assurance.
But the chief credit must go to Gribbin. Composed in a single movement, her piece evolves like a tree in springtime. From desolate bare branches to fierce bloom, the music’s cells are transformed via a series of subtle, almost imperceptible changes of articulation and rhythm. Her harmonic language is contemporary, yet so powerfully expressive that it communicates its meaning instantly. And her command of the medium-for instance the gradual unfolding of sonority from the stratospheric mesh of notes at the outset into increasingly frenzied, storm-tossed refrains-cannot be faulted.
Yet it is the powerful emotional life of the music that makes it so gripping. According to the composer, the title refers to a true story of shipwrecked sailors who drifted for months before being sighted by a whaling ship. And although Gribbin isn’t into musical docudrama, the piece does suggest a desperate journey to an inner hell, form which only a few will be rescued-if indeed, the spine-chilling ending (scarcely audible wisp of folkish lament over a hollow drone) qualifies as a rescue.It is a work that deserves many performances. And it is further evidence that the Belfast born composer is one of the most original thinkers to emerge in recent years.
Karol Symanowski Quartet
What have I been doing for the past nine years to have missed the rise of the Symanowski Quartet? Now that I have heard this polish ensemble I shall certainly become their celebrity stalker. Their intonation and blend are impeccable. They don’t so much bow the strings as brush them with silk, or so it sounds. And they seem to play with one heart, one mind, one purpose.
What’s more, they relish a challenge, as they showed in this stunning recital to launch the City of London Festival.
|© 2005 Deirdre Gribbin|