Live Reviews: ConTempo String Quartet / RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet

Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin / National Gallery, Dublin / 2 December 2007

Sunday the 2nd of December almost accidentally became a feast-day for devotees of the string quartet. At twelve noon, the ConTempo String Quartet, Galway’s ensemble-in-residence, played four new works by Irish composers. Coincidentally, a few hours later, the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet, artists-in-residence at UCC, were finishing a national tour that celebrated their twenty-first anniversary with a programme of new quartets by Irish composers, followed by Schubert’s Cello Quintet in C major, D.956, for which they were joined by Ralph Kirshbaum.

A few impressions, then, taken prestissimo.

As with any work that is realised from a set of materials and rules laid down by the composer, multiple versions are possible. In the case of Rob Canning’s Melencolia 1 for String Quartet, Live Electronics and Quadraphonic/Octaphonic Sound DiffusionM1SQLEQ/OSD for short? – the programme notes informed us that the players navigated their way through an 8x8 grid of musical fragments. This information may take its place at the back of listeners’ minds, and raise questions before or after the performance, but the particular realisation heard on a particular day is what matters for the particular set of listeners in the room. This was quite an attractive piece, a musical parallel to the melancholy drift of slowly shape-changing clouds across the sky, with little fizzing runs at certain moments and near-stasis at others. With delayed recording of the ensemble fed through widely separated speakers, the separation of sounds and the accentuated sense of space that resulted was presumably deliberate.

Ed Bennett’s for James Ferrada, a lament for a fellow-composer who died very young, followed. The tone was one of anger or incomprehension rather than elegy, with relentless, high-speed, harsh bowing – as if a dark fragment of Shostakovich were taken and hammered to pieces. The intensity held the attention on a first hearing, but was there anything more for a second hearing to reveal?

David Flynn’s String Quartet No. 3: An Caoineadh (‘The Keening’), partly inspired by Breandán Ó Madagáin’s book on the topic, asked a different question. Not the entirely pointless question of whether composers should or should not use traditional material when composing in the classical/contemporary idiom, but whether this particular referencing of tradition sustained interest or accomplished more than, say, Paddy Glackin’s ‘Gol na mBan san Ár’ or Leo Rowsome’s equally stark ‘Staker Wallace’? The three-part work follows stages in the performance of traditional keening (murmuring, dirge, cry). For this listener, initial curiosity at how the material would be handled was not sustained into the third movement. Another listening, another work by the same composer, may produce a different reaction…

In the final work of the concert, ConTempo ConVersations, Jane O’Leary asked us to follow the light but colourful and resilient thread that the quartet spun almost from nothing. No dramatics, no shouting at fate, but a task deftly accomplished.

To the National Gallery then, for more. There were probably more Schubertians in the audience than seekers of the contemporary, but all were catered for. In an act of what the composer characterises as ‘reverse experimentalism’, Seóirse Bodley’s two-movement String Quartet No. 4 marks a journey towards a pre-modernist musical language by a composer who was long a standard-bearer for modernism on the Irish scene. The journey is interesting, the work a little less so.

In his direct and unpretentious composer’s notes, Ronan Guilfoyle says of his own composition that he likes to give each musician something to work with and a chance to show their musicality. Music for String Quartet went from a fast first movement to a lyrical (Dvorak/spiritual-tinged?) second, before running through a catchily rhythmic third. Mission accomplished.

Deirdre Gribbin’s composer’s note goes into some detail about merrows, the mermaids of the Gaelic tradition, and an account of keening from Fairy Tales of the Irish Peasantry. This might have led to an expectation of more sweet melancholia. Merrow Sang, however, began in quite unplangent style, being dense and almost resistant, before air and light seemed to enter and sweeten the tone of this intriguing work.

Having caught an English/Norwegian quartet giving an impassioned rendition of the Schubert piece in a tiny chapel in Dingle a few months ago, I was less caught up in its delights than expected, or perhaps it was a dulling of the senses brought on by a surfeit of quartets.

But no concert on Sunday was as sheerly exciting as the concert in the Printing House the following Tuesday, when Rolf Hind on piano and David Alberman on violin offered totally convincing and spirit-lifting performances of works by Raymond Deane and Siobhan Cleary among others.

Published on 1 January 2008

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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