The Penderecki String Quartet’s Centrediscs CD “LAUNCHING PAD” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

September 17, 2008

The Penderecki String Quartet is a tight unit with a daring flair and a sense of adventure. Their 2006 recording of Bartok’s complete string quartets has nosed ahead of both the Emerson and Vermeer Quartet versions that I like to listen to. I consider myself fortunate to hear the PSQ regularly in many different settings along the Toronto-Ottawa corridor.

“Launch Pad” is the title of their latest release. Subtitled “New Canadian Works for the Penderecki String Quartet,” it is a collection that I find both challenging and intimate, starting with Laurie Radford’s “Everything We See in the Sky”–a 17 minute piece that I first heard them play at a New Music Concert in the spring of ’07.

It is kinetic music made of a mix of acoustic and electrified instrumentals that starts with a bang, subsides into a high-pitched whine, a flow of fragments flocking in a space-time continuum like the track of a comet. Radford’s electronics extend the timbral range of this string quartet into a dimensional shift that enhances our ability to imagine interplay and collision of sonics at the quantum level as well as at the astral.

The Penderecki’s sounds are flattened and squashed, stretched and extenuated. Piercing and fading sounds, sliding and groaning sounds manifest weirdly from a matrix that approximates Appalachian sonics like a psychedelic bluegrass jug band from outer/inner space.

One has the sense of musical phrases being speeches, without narrative or political intent, by voices single and in unison, as if we are hearing a simulcast of the entire vocal production of the crew of a spaceship including moments of serious personal drama and episodes of collective accord. Truly a voyage and really a trip. It is the most extraverted piece in this collection and gives the sense that the PSQ is having fun.

Alice Ho’s music is about drama. A recent piece of hers “Angst II (2006)” describes the intense anxiety you might feel if you were trapped in a space like an underground garage.  Despite the fact that there is usually a strong idea behind her work, she is not so much concerned with form, but with the organic flow of imagination. The PSQ offers here an earlier work of Ho’s, the 17 minute “ String Quartet No.2 (2003).

The idea expressed here in two connected movements is based on two opposing forces: dream and reality. The first movement develops its atmosphere out of a single chord prolonged that swells into a tutti passage of mixed texture. The colouring consists of percussive eruptions, bits of twittering, plinking and sighing, and some extremely interesting vocalese by members of the quartet, meant to suggest “sobbing souls.” The second movement, “reality”, is higher energy, more pleasant sounds, that unroll like an action painting. The sonic textures are visual, suggesting strokes of brush, knife, rag, and drip, making a large abstract canvas.

Piotr Grella-Mozejko describes his “String Quartet No.2 (1999-2000): The Secret Garden,” as his effort to “encode in sound [his] emotional response to the excessively poignant and visually stunning movie that Agnieszka Holland made of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic children’s novel.  Grella Mozejko gravitates towards the theme of innocence. His “String Quartet No.3 (2007)” the PSQ premiered in March of last year, reflects the anger all those who believe that humanity must feel while witnessing the slaughter of the innocents who died by the order of tyrants of our age. The music sounds like the thunder of boots of an army of dreadful intent marching over a wooden bridge bringing it to the verge of disintegration and collapse.

“The Secret Garden” that we have on this disc is very different. It begins with a long, slow, barely audible sonic extrusion without any particular shape that thickens with deep cello bowings. The feeling is exploratory. The excitement builds, a sense of presence and shaped moments emerge, wheezy and drony like evanescent dragonfly wings. One senses in the sometimes tender, sometimes taut passages, rushes of feeling as if a definite but unknown language were being spoken. This work speaks with a notable confidence, without being transparent.

If there is an element of “Launching Pad” from which the feeling of pleasure tapers off, it is the sameness of the openings of several of the pieces. This element is particularly evident in the two compositions that remain to be discussed here: Jeffrey Ryan’s “String Quartet No.3, ‘sonata distorta’, and Daniel Janke’s “String Quartet No 1.” They both open with a long, sustained monotonic passage. The Janke is dissonant tense and eerie, and almost verges on a melody. Janke’s composition is the most tonal and the most approachable of the compositions. Its seven sections in ten minutes tend towards delicacy, like a swarm of flies rising and buzzing in random circles that suggest Eastern sounding melodic patterns.

The Ryan “Quartet develops high, eerie passages that fade with a dying fall, morph into what sounds like church organ chords, followed by an excited, rapid, pizzicato conversation that builds towards distorted agitations and ends abruptly. The inspiration behind the work is the story of Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata” that describes the fatal paranoia of a jealous husband.

Despite some reservations, there is an excitement of  the PSQ’s discovery in this CD that is rewarding to share. Here is the Centrediscs link.

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