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Quatuor Diotima, Exquisite Stillness

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
Thomas Larcher, Madhares

(to be released on June 8, 2010)

available at Amazon
Onslow, op. 54-56

Online scores:
François Sarhan, BOBOK
Ravel, String Quartet in F Major
As previewed earlier this week, the Quatuor Diotima came back to La Maison Française on Monday night, for another appearance on the French embassy's highly esteemed contemporary music series. This adventurous French string quartet took its name from a work by Luigi Nono and has won prizes and critical acclaim for its performances of contemporary music. As heard in the three recent works on this program, the group's approach to dissonance and unconventional instrumental techniques is little different from how they approached the gorgeous late tonal string quartet of Maurice Ravel: even when a more savage or pitiless interpretation could have been justified, they simply let the sound emanate and make its own point. The listener never feels beaten over the head, either by lush extended triadic harmony or by tone-neutral growls or rasps.

The opening work, Bitume, is the second string quartet by French composer Gérard Pesson (b. 1958), who teaches composition at the Conservatoire in Paris, commissioned for the Diotima to play at the 2008 Festival d'Automne in Paris. It is an evocative piece, using all manner of unusual techniques to create strange combinations of sounds -- using the wood of the bow to create flute-like overtones, sul ponticello effects -- as the work began on a single note, to which it would return at times. A pleasing rhythmic pulse would be established, only to recede again into the cloud of strange sounds, vaguely insect-like and all of it sotto voce. The piece ended with a faster section, based on a catchy, quasi-Latin rhythm.

Pesson's quartet was paired nicely with a string quartet by François Sarhan, BOBOK (see the .PDF version of the score), composed in 2002 as part of a cycle of chamber works inspired by the short story of that name by Fyodor Dostoevsky. A largely nonsensical tale about a failed writer, in the process of losing his mind, looking for material among the voices of the dead in a cemetery, it inspired some otherworldly sounds, as in the tense viola solo that concludes the piece, over a tone-free whine of vaporized space noise. The work began with all of the instruments in strict homophony, all playing in the same rhythmic pattern, often focusing on the opening chord, which returned many times. That unity comes apart at the seams, as the instruments sometimes seem to get caught up in obsessive loops, only to return to rhythmic calm. Sardonic humor also abounds, in oompah patterns, and a biting, sarcastic tone that could be described as Prokofiev- or Shostakovich-like grotesquerie. Near the end, a folk-like or naive innocence entered the work as Sarhan called for the violins and viola to be played like a cello, while the cellist was instructed to bow left-handed.

Thomas Larcher's third string quartet, Madhares (2006/07), began with a glissando-tremolo created by tapping a coin on the first violin's strings. The music of the Austrian composer, born in 1963, will be featured on a recording to be released on the ECM label this summer. Like many composers who came of age in the late 20th century, Larcher does not shy away from the use of tonality in his music: alongside many experimental sounds were passages of fairly traditional tonal music, including the folk-like section that concludes the work. One wishes that that final section and its false sense of resolution had been omitted, instead ending the piece on the return of that haunting coin motif. The Diotima proved with this survey of string quartets from the past decade that it could master modern techniques, creating sounds often not at all associated with their instruments, the many complicated metric patterns requiring one of the players to conduct with his instrument to keep the ensemble together, and so on.

With the final work, Ravel's F major quartet, they showed where that sense of coloristic exploration came from, a comparison akin to hanging some late Cézannes that explain what inspired later Cubist or abstract paintings. The Ravel is a gorgeous work that we have reviewed in many performances, from the exceptional to the adequate, and this one was so successful because it did not wallow in the swaths of color, remaining crystalline, finely etched, and rhythmically active. A very pleasing evening concluded with an encore from the quartet's recent disc of music by George Onslow, the finale of the C minor quartet, op. 56.

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