Riverrun Records RVRCD77
The Callino Quartet
With a playing time of just one hour, this concentrated clutch of three string quartets and a suite of ‘elegiac pieces’ offers itself up as a clenched fist of a programme that the listener must attempt to prise open with each listen, one or more of its fingers always remaining clamped shut, as if clasping something valuable and vulnerable to itself. The white-knuckle intensity of the experience obliges you to keep returning to these emotionally charged, tautly coruscating and fiercely realised works in an effort to understand and then appreciate. And, indeed, vice versa.
The quartets – Numbers 4 (Veer), 5 (…wander, darkling) and 6 (In fretta, in vento) – are the products of an intense 18-month period around the turn of the millennium when Wilson was forced to flee from a NATO bombing campaign in his adopted Belgrade to reluctant repatriation in Ireland. The Sixth is corralled between Wilson’s reflections on the terrorist atrocities of the 9/11 attacks and the death shortly afterwards of the composer’s grandmother. In the collision between public tribute and private grief, these works of outrage and protest vehemently strain against the implacable provocations of brute violence and, occasionally fruitfully, go steadfastly in search of spiritual solace.
Such an instance occurs in the dying moments of the Sixth, whose title translates as ‘Hastily, into the air’, when Wilson movingly quotes the Bach chorale O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid! (‘Oh sadness, oh sorrow!’). It is the most bittersweet of moments, at once fragile and defiant and wholly typical of the compassion that informs every note that Wilson sets on a stave.
The Fifth Quartet burns with the darkest of flames, communicating with a peppery, Berg-like rush of repulsion and razor-sharp horror, its sharp, slicing, shivering string textures tumbling over each other in tumult and turmoil. Nearing the end of their first decade together, the Callino Quartet play with a controlled and incisive dexterity that emphasises clarity of expression and suggests the maturity of a considerably older ensemble.
Veer, Wilson’s Fourth Quartet, differs from its two companions in length – at under 10 minutes it is half as long as the Fifth and four minutes shorter than the Sixth – and structure, conceived as it is in two compact movements. To know that they draw their inspiration from Edvard Munch’s paintings The Scream and Melancholy tells you something about them, but not everything: Veer is more concerned with an unspecified quest than the obvious quarrels that the Fifth and Sixth Quartets pursue and is somewhat more gnomic as a result.
By comparison, and in stark relief – in both senses of the word – the most recent work, 2004’s wistful seven-part Lyric Suite (the title is a nod to RTÉ Lyric FM, who commissioned the work), communicates with meditative moderation and offers necessary balm after what has gone before.