Oh how time flies. It was indeed five years ago that the Carducci Quartet published its first volume of Glass quartets recorded for the Naxos label in 2010. A few weeks ago, the quartet tackled most of the remaining repertoire Glass has written on that scale including String Quartet No.5 (1991), an eight-movement suite of music from Glass’s Dracula (1999), and the String Sextet arrangement of Symphony No.3 – mistakenly listed on the back of the CD as “Heroes” which is of course the subtitle of Glass’s Symphony No.4.
Speaking from personal experience, Glass’s quartets themselves – and recording them – is a challenging prospect. Not only is the music to varying degrees traditionally “difficult,” but the composer’s penchant for pure intervals lays bare any and all mistakes. These are mistakes which are common in string performance of all sorts of music from Mozart to Stravinsky. However, in the modern canon one of the benefits of moving away from tonality meant that such errors were less common because one might not know that certain music was being played out of tune intentionally or not. On the other hand, chez Glass, if you are playing out of tune it’s immediately perceptible. As such, the marvelous part of the Carducci’s playing in this case is not that they are playing in tune, but that there’s a confidence and coherence in its reading of the works in question – that is to say they are playing precisely in tune at full speed.
Part of the splendor of early Glass’s music was the human element of audible struggle in otherwise mechanical repetitions; since humans were playing Glass’s music you would hear the struggles, mistakes, and minute shifts of time in entrances, exits, which brought the music a humanity despite its heavy repetitions. Most of Glass’s music for string quartets come mostly from a “later” period of a mature composer with the exception of String Quartet No.1 (1966) which is in fact his Opus One in the minimalist style. Carducci Quartet relishes in the more Romantic elements of Glass’s later style, all the while maintaining an expert technical command required for all the rhythmic precision necessary for this music to thrive.
No where is this more evident than in the Carducci Quartet’s interpretation of String Quartet No.5. The piece is in five movements but with each movement marked attaca, meaning that the piece should really be heard as one big movement. With that in mind, I’ve always heard the piece as a four movement prelude to a hoe-down jubilation in the fifth movement – possibly the joyous thing Glass has ever composed. Everything energy and momentum leads to that movement and its celebratory middle section. With an extended, perhaps exaggerated, held note at the end of the fourth movement, the Carducci’s seem to understand the architecture of the whole piece in a complete and dramatic sense. For me, that held note indicated everything of the group’s mastery of the music.
It is refreshing to hear a new extended suite from Glass’s Dracula. The music was reserved for performances by Glass and the Kronos Quartet for a very long time as Dracula remains part of the active repertoire (Glass and Kronos will perform Dracula at the ACE HOTEL in Los Angeles this Halloween). Michael Riesman arranged the entirety of the score for piano, and pianist Bruce Levingston made his own transcriptions and recorded them, as well. The score also exists in an arrangement for the Philip Glass Ensemble. However, until this new recording, no group besides Kronos Quartet has ever recorded an extended suite for the original arrangement of string quartet. Again, the performance is brilliant.
Once upon a time, all this music would have been considered challenging in some way to performers and audiences alike. Perhaps owing to the youth of the players involved here, it’s clear to me that Glass’s musical language is now completely part of the musical vernacular of our time: these players “get it” and reveal themselves to be nothing less than masters of Glass’s style – fluent practitioners of his language. This is on full display in tracks like “The Storm” with it’s quick tempo and rapid shifts from pizzicato to arco, then leading to displays of lucious melodic playing in “In The Theatre” and a virtuosic unraveling of everything in “The End.”
For the arrangement of Glass’s Third Symphony for String Sextet, the Carducci Quartet brought in violist Cian Ó Dúill and cellist Gemma Rosefield. The enlarged group loses nothing in organic intensity. In all, this new release flows brilliantly from one track to another. In terms of programming, it works great, it’s the kind of all-Glass concert I think would work great in live performance: a chamber music masterwork, followed by theater/film music of a Romantic nature, concluding with a larger and more serious piece with symphonic dimensions. It highlights elements of the highest qualities in Glass’s music in many different media in which he composes. Glass’s music benefits from and is complimented by such highly accomplished performances. Highly Recommended