ADÈS Arcadiana. Piano Quintet. The Four Quarters
Adès’s first string quartet, Arcadiana (1994), was premiered a year before Powder Her Face. That this is its sixth recording since then (by my count) shows just how successful it is in fusing contemporary sonority, formal familiarity and imaginative depth. The Dutch DoelenKwartet present the work as a journey, with beginning, middle and end. Over seven brief movements a range of maritime emotional states, breezy to brooding, reminiscing to remonstrating, pass by. Emerging from glistening harmonics, the quiet monophonic conclusion of the anti-finale, ‘Lethe’, is full of pathos; the Elgar-alluding ‘O Albion’ movement, though, can’t be saved from a certain over-sentimentality.
In the Piano Quintet (2000) episodic contrast is eschewed for the development of two contrasting themes in a continuous sonata texture. Despite the traditional starting point, there is nothing academic or furrow-browed here. Lively, tuneful, at times ironic and extravagant – is there a dash of Gerald Barry in the obsessive scalar repetitions, abrupt contrasts and wrangled tonality? – the quintet displays striking ingenuity. The dynamic range of the DoelenKwartet and Dimitri Vassilakis’s reading makes it consistently captivating.
Adès’s second string quartet, The Four Quarters (2010), is markedly more mature than Arcadiana – more expansive in process, less focused on fleeting gestures (even if its more excitable moments are too measured for my liking). The DoelenKwartet handle The Four Quarters with poise and balance, and the work’s classicism is accentuated in the DoelenKwartet’s combination of warm tone and technical precision. The pizzicato counterpoint of the second movement, ‘Morning Dew’, feels raw without being rough. The ethereal false harmonics in the closing movement, ‘The Twenty-fifth Hour’, are sprightly to the point of dizziness. The titular quarters refer to Corot’s four times of the day; the piece would make an intriguing partner to Cage’s four seasons-based String Quartet in Four Parts.
This same string quartet programme has previously been recorded by the Calder Quartet (Signum, 7/15). If the performances are evenly matched, the DoelenKwartet disc is the clear winner for its sound quality, the lucent SACD allowing for appreciation of new details at each listen.