One of the greatest gifts of the string quartet is its ability to explore the most intimate of soundworlds. The second of Jörg Widmann‘s string quartets (he’s composed a series of five), subtitled the ‘Chorale Quartet’, is a striking example of this, spending much of its time at the threshold of utterance.
Widmann makes it clear in the opening moments of the piece that there is something familiar, traditional and perhaps fundamental, lurking not far beneath the surface of the music. It emerges from the halting, sporadic notes that begin the work, broken and tainted by the quartet’s hesitance and microtonal inflections. This is almost as clear as it is able to become; much of the time it can barely be perceived beneath the network of near-silent gestures from which most of the work’s fabric is made. It’s a judgement call as to whether the players are working to defeat this latent material or whether it’s defeating them, but either way, the quartet’s demeanour is an uncomfortable one. Their hesitant notes occasionally get drawn-out into long, spindly threads, coated in barely audible shivers; but when they seek to be more assertive, the result is rude blurts, needle-sharp pizzicatos, grinding accents and dull surges. About a third of the way through, the quartet appears to grow, both in terms of substance and confidence, but a potentially strong cadential moment gets caught once again, quickly reduced to fragility. The notes slide, blur, dissolve into near non-existence; in response, the players concoct a grating passage on the bridge of their instruments, which brings about the second significant occurrence of the underlying material. Now, it appears stronger yet more out of focus, its tonal harmonies corrupted and overlapping; the quartet appears to fight in earnest to perpetuate this material but it first fizzles into tremolandi before reducing to little more than a tiny, glacial trace. Some final desperate surges try too hard to restore it, ultimately distorting and ruining its beauty. Only some achingly soft whispered phrases are able to capture something authentic, but they prove unsustainable, quivering themselves into nothing.
This wonderfully delicate performance was given last year by BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists the Signum Quartet.