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Concert Preview: Daedalus Quartet

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Sibelius, String Quartet in D Minor ("Voces intimae") / Stravinsky, Three Pieces for String Quartet / Ravel, String Quartet in F Major, Daedalus Quartet

(released on August 22, 2006)
Bridge Records 9202 | 66'02"
The Daedalus Quartet came on the scene as a young and newly formed ensemble, winning top honors at the 2001 Banff Competition -- by the way, the tenth installment of that triennial competition of string quartets is coming up this summer (August 30 to September 5). Their performances, in the area and elsewhere, have received mostly glowing reviews, including a 2006 concert at the Corcoran and another in 2005 at the Library of Congress with violist Donald Weilerstein. The group returns to the area this week, for a recital in the Barns at Wolf Trap this Friday (January 15, 8 pm).

The quartet's debut CD, a combination of three dynamite pieces from the first two decades of the 20th century, has been playing in my ears recently in preparation. It opens with an intense, austere reading of Sibelius's String Quartet in D Minor ("Voces intimae," op. 56), a work that is often associated with the composer's health troubles, although scholar Andrew Barnett has identified sketches of themes for the quartet that predate Sibelius's throat tumor, from 1899 to 1903. The quartet's subtitle comes from Sibelius's annotation of those words in a manuscript score given to a friend, over the ppp E minor chords at measure 21 of the middle movement (Adagio di molto) and that recur later, played here with an almost inaudible scratchiness. The other major work on this disc is Ravel's String Quartet in F Major, a melody-rich confection that has become a favorite of quartets everywhere: in recent years we have reviewed it in concert or on disc from the Shanghai Quartet, the Quatuor Ébène, and the Cuarteto Casals, to name only a few. The playing is polished and balanced, the first violin not dominating, with a musical urgency tightening and relaxing in ear-pleasing ways, not least in its indulgence of Ravel's luscious harmonies.

Rounding out the Daedalus Quartet's capable handling of 20th-century vocabulary is an edgy rendition of Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet, the latest and most forward-looking work on the disc. The first movement, which Stravinsky identified as Dance when he orchestrated it, sounds like a frantically played, slightly mistuned folk hurdy gurdy. A finely honed sense of humor pervades the clownish second movement, and the somber third movement makes an interesting connection to the more hushed movements of the Sibelius. The Daedalus Quartet's flair for contemporary music bodes well for the centerpiece of their program this Friday at Wolf Trap, the world premiere of Lawrence Dillon's String Quartet No. 4: The Infinite Sphere. The piece is the fourth part of Invisible Cities, a cycle of six string quartets intended to explore and re-validate traditional forms and structures of the classical string quartet. The title comes from a quotation of Blaise Pascal, leading Dillon to experiment with circular forms, especially the round and the rondo. The concert will also feature two more traditional selections, quartets by Mozart and Beethoven. Lest one think that the Daedalus Quartet excels only at contemporary msuic, the group was also awarded the Székely Prize at Banff in 2001, for the best performance of a Beethoven quartet during the competition.

Tickets, priced at $35, remain for the recital by the Daedalus Quartet in the Barns at Wolf Trap this Friday (January 15, 8 pm).

How could I have neglected to mention that Lawrence Dillon also writes a blog, An Infinite Number of Curves? It's hosted by the new music folks at Sequenza 21. Lawrence has a few thoughts on his new string quartet here and here and here:
The musical materials make use of all kinds of circular gestures, and I could write about them ad nauseum, but what’s more interesting to me is the fact that The Infinite Sphere has to be one of my most joyous, exuberant works to date. Some of its high spirits can be attributed to the form itself: traditional rondos don’t tend to deal in existential angst. Part of it, though, comes from a challenge I set myself -- writing a twenty-minute piece that has a positive emotional tone is not the easiest thing to do. I hasten to add that we’re not talking yippee-yippee-yippee for twenty minutes -- that would be obnoxious. Two of the rounds have a dynamic range of pp to mp, focusing on a very quiet, transcending joy.
He also notes that there are plans for the Daedalus Quartet to record the quartet for Bridge Records.

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