Since 2022, Quatuor Molinari has embarked on a process to record all of the Philip Glass string quartets. Volume 1 featured Glass’s First Quartet from 1966 through his Fourth in 1989. The newest volume which was released at the end of November 2023 features Glass’s Fifth from 1991 through his Seventh in 2013. Quatuor Molinari spoke with Richard Guérin about the second volume of the three-volume project to record all of the Glass pieces in the medium:
Well, first and foremost I’m interested in what was the motivation into digging into this project of recording the entirety of all the Glass quartets?
Considering that we regularly perform and record complete cycles of string quartets by a single composer, Philip Glass, one of the most iconic American composer’s definitely
came into our spotlight.
His quartet cycle spans over more than 50 years, and therefore shows a real evolution in the composer’s writing and approach to the genre. It also gives the opportunity for the listeners to rediscover a composer from a fresh angle through his cycle of works for string quartet.
We also really enjoy playing his music and the public is always very receptive to it. His quartets offer a very transparent and precise writing and our challenge is to interpret his music by being as faithful as possible to Glass’ intentions but also by bringing our own personal vision to his quartets.
How long have you been playing them? Have you played them all live?
Right from the first season of the Molinari Quartet in 1997-98 we started to play his quartets. But especially during the last 5 years, we have been regularly adding his quartets to our repertoire. During the pandemic, the quartets seemed appropriate to play as they offer comforting and reassuring music. The quartets that we have recorded have all been performed in public at different occasions to the great pleasure of the audiences. Once we will have recorded the complete cycle, we are planning a big event «The Quartet According to Glass» in which we will have a marathon-concert with all his quartets. Who knows how many there will be in 2-3 years?!
Do you have any favorites?
It is difficult to choose a favourite quartet, they are all beautiful and each one offers something different. I must admit that we do have a penchant for Quartet No.5. Its five movements show different styles of writing from lyrical to pulsating, from subdued to exuberant. It’s a very well balanced work.
No.3 seems to me to be the most substantial of the earlier quartets – but at this point Glass was almost 50 years old. It all seemed very linear to me. Do you feel it that way?
You could say that it is linear but I don’t think it should be seemed negatively. It’s the first mature quartet and it really digs into his style. It is “pure Glass”. The fact that it was also written for the film Mishima, limited his freedom. On the other hand, the large scope of dynamics gives the work richness and body. Quartet No.4 that follows, offers a new vision of string quartet writing for Glass. If it was linear before, he broke away from that with Bucsak.
This second volume you did the Fifth, then jumped the 22 years forward to String Quartets Nos.6 and 7. Again, did you feel there was a big jump in the language, or perhaps it wasn’t as pronounced as the difference between the First and the Second?
There is definitely a big jump as there was one between the first two quartets. In Quartet No.6, there seems to be a desire to expand the form internally by the use of double stops (for a richer harmony), by more varied and complex rhythms and also by the abundant thematic material. The beginning of the third movement of No.6 is also very surprising with its long unison passage in the four instruments alternating from 7/8 to 4/4 meter. It is definitively the most difficult to execute as a group. With No.7, there is an opposition between two thematic elements: one very broken, with leaps of sixths and tenths versus a very linear scale motif. Also, despite several contrasting sections, this quartet is in one movement.
And how do you see them through the prism of the last half century or so of quartet literature?
Glass’ string quartets are absolutely unique and his language will always be recognizable. We are sure that they will continue to be part of the string quartet repertoire because of their great quality and because of their place in the heart of the public.
Volume One and Two of the Molinari’s Quartets are now available
Volume One at Spotify and Apple Music