Arditti Quartet

Harrison Birtwistle: Complete String Quartets

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Harrison Birtwistle: Complete String Quartets may suggest a large oeuvre, but there are just two quartets of approximately 30 minutes in length that were composed late in the composer's career. This tardy arrival to the genre can be explained by Birtwistle's decades-long preoccupation with his theater pieces, or his preference for composing music for wind and percussion instruments, but the fact remains that he eventually turned to the string quartet to make major statements. String Quartet: The Tree of Strings (2007) is the opener of the program, and the austere music grows out of a quiet opening of harmonics and tremolandos that generate clusters, quickly interrupted by passionate solo outbursts and startling ensemble glissandos. The work takes many dramatic turns, and sometimes the angular counterpoint becomes gratingly dissonant and complicated, but the general tone of the work is intospective and its argumentation is largely spare and abstract. The second piece on the disc, 9 Movements for String Quartet (1991-1996), is constructed as a series of fantasias and friezes, more as a collection of separate pieces than the integrated movements of the traditional string quartet. Birtwistle's innovative writing is not always idiomatic, so the effects he asks of the group often negate the conventional idea of repartée, so long at the center of the string quartet's history. The quartets are played by the redoubtable Arditti Quartet, for whom such challenging music seems like a cakewalk, and the group is fully committed and energetic. Aeon's recording is carefully balanced and engineered to give the quartet the best sound for all the extremes of dynamics and extended effects.

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