Good Medicine - string quartets from America & Europe

An imaginative programme of 20th-century writing for string quartet with many more hits than misses

Author: 
Michael Stewart

Good Medicine - string quartets from America & Europe

  • Salome Dances for Peace, Good Medicine
  • Great Crossing, Great Divide
  • String Quartet No. 1
  • In Re don Giovanni
  • Last Light
  • (5) Movements
  • Paul Robeson Told Me
  • Summa
  • Servant

Something of a 20th- century mixed bag here, though nevertheless an interesting one in its juxtaposition of diverse and stimulating pieces. Terry Riley's cycle of quartets, Salome Dances for Peace (1986-87), has already secured something of classic status in the minimalist genre. Good Medicine, the fifth and last quartet of the cycle, has a gently cumulative and mildly trance-inducing effect - one of those pieces that either irritate or hit just the right spot depending on your mood. Steven Mackey's short Great Crossing, Great Divide (1996), on the other hand, simply irritates, at least for this listener. As a study in working from seemingly disparate gestures towards 'something' I found it somewhat lacking in substance, especially when combined, as it is, with a distinctly anonymous musical voice.
Conlon Nancarrow's String Quartet (1945) has all the rhythmical complexities of the more familiar studies for player-piano, coupled with some distinctly Tippett-like harmonies. The fascinating prestissimo finale seems to harness multiple personalities clamouring to escape - sometimes individually, sometimes all at once. Michael Nyman's short, ingenious homage to Mozart, In Re Don Giovanni, continues the manic pace, but the mood shifts with Andrew Poppy's atmospheric fragment Last Light, and Webern's Five Pieces, Op 5, take the proceedings into an even more rarefied and pristine atmosphere - did Webern ever write a superfluous note?
There's nothing rarefied about Michael Daugherty's Paul Robeson Told Me: what we get here is a fascinating and disturbing two- movement work where material derived from a Russian radio recording that Robeson made in 1940 is brilliantly transformed by the quartet and merged with the original radio recording. The meditative strains of Part's Summa follows, before leading us to the more driven and propulsive sound world of Graham Fitkin's Servant (1992), a compelling and finely crafted piece beautifully proportioned and full of memorable material.
The Smith Quartet which excels in this repertoire gives committed and outstanding performances throughout, and the recording, made in Henry Wood Hall, is first-rate. A disc well worth acquiring.
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