As a die-hard Mozart/Beethoven/Tchaikovsky kind of guy, I have a hard time describing new music. I know what I like and what I don't. But I can say without hesitation I certainly like this music for string quartet by American composer Michael Ippolito. And he could not have better advocates than the incredible Attacca Quartet and the Azica record label.
I first got to know this composer from his wonderful new Divertimento, just released on BIS (along with other Divertimenti) played by the c/o chamber orchestra. (My review of that disc appears elsewhere on this blog.) There were hints of Bartok which I enjoyed, along with an obvious natural creative ability and a gift for orchestration. This disc of string quartet music confirms this is a composer of real talent and a masterful orchestrator. I don't hear Bartok here, though. This composer displays a distinct, unique musical voice all his own. It's obviously contemporary, but yet tonal, with compositional structure based upon musical motifs (not just rhythmic ones). And so much colorful writing.
Let's start with orchestration. Listening to the second track, Trace, I was absolutely certain there were more than just 4 players. So much dove-tailing, and variety of tone-colors, there had to be additional players included here, right? Well, not according to the booklet. There is no mention anywhere of additional players joining the Attacca Quartet. So with that fact firmly established, I listened to it again. And I am simply amazed at the sounds this composer can produce from just 4 players. The use of double stops is skillfully (and very cleverly) accomplished. And the music itself is simply fascinating. I'm a fan of short-stories, and this short work would seem to fall into the musical equivalent of that. The musical content and emotional impact contained within this piece lasting just under 6 minutes is simply miraculous.
Big Sky, Low Horizon perks us up a bit, sounding the most identifiably "American" of all the works on this program. I even hear hints of a fiddler's violin here and there, with the jaunty bouncing around of open 4ths and 5ths in one section. Smoke Rings returns us to the soundworld of Trace. There is a gorgeous, harmonious trio, first for the 2 violins and viola punctuated by cello pizzicatos, and later the orchestration switches it around to a lower register, with a violin taking over the pizzs. Soon the entire quartet takes up the chorale, played largely sans vibrato, with sharply bowed accents interjecting with dramatic effect. The Attacca makes it beautiful, with or without vibrato. This is another "short story" which is so descriptive, it makes a perfect 6-1/2 minutes of music.
Coming to the String Quartets at last, they are the most substantial works on the program, and likely the major attraction for many collectors. #3 comes first on the disc, a single movement chorale, lasting 10 minutes, with a variety of moods. The subtitle, Songlines, perfectly describes it. I heard it as a song throughout its entirety. ("Songlines" actually came to mind throughout this entire disc.)
But the 2nd Quartet is the real masterpiece. It is quite substantial, in three movements, lasting 25'. From the dramatic opening Allegro energico, I was instantly drawn in, on the edge of my seat, with the intensity of the opening unison for all 4 players. Shostakovich came to mind briefly here. The second movement reminds one of the sounds in Smoke Rings. It is more intensely dramatic, with a very passionate cello solo mid-way, handing off to the violin, then with the entire quartet crying out in an almost tragic tone. What an emotional experience this is! And then they fade into nothingness in the final bars (without the aid of the recording engineers). What glorious playing here by the Attacca.
In the final Allegro molto, I hear some more Shostakovich - some Russian angst - in the opening minutes. But that is soon forgotten, becoming pure Michael Ippolito at his very best. It really can be written by no one else. Just listen to the glissandi at the 4' mark, and the sul ponticello viola and cello at 6'. Otherworldly yes, but what an incredible story-teller this composer is! The intensity continues to build and tighten, with the lower two players arguing back and forth with the violins (some double-unison polyphony, which I really liked), and the clamor culminates in a final outcry from all. And at this point I'm emotionally drained. And I can only state emphatically that this work is simply magnificent. It can stand side-by-side with my other recent masterpiece discovery, the 3rd Quartet by Shulamit Ran (contained on the disc, 'Contemporary Voices', played by the marvelous Pacifica Quartet, also reviewed on my blog). Both are emotionally moving, stimulating musical experiences; endlessly fascinating works worthy of the highest esteem.
This Circle concludes the program, providing the calming respite needed to recover from that which precedes it. It's another short story, this time for string trio (minus the 2nd violin), with singing lines - poignant and melancholy, with an underlying, impending despair and uncertainty. And it ends with harmonics evaporating into the rafters.
I am simply bowled over by this music. And certainly by the playing of the Attacca Quartet. Overall, this is a fantastic disc which is so endlessly interesting, varied, colorful and emotionally moving and musically rewarding, I can hardly stop listening to it. And each time I hear something I missed before - not just technically (as in construction and orchestration), but a deeper meaning to it all. I would encourage anyone hearing this music to read the interesting booklet, which includes substantial program notes by the composer, for a much better understanding of each piece.
Finally, this is yet another fantastic release from the great Azica label. The production is first class and the recorded sound is stunning in its clarity and realism. The quartet is recorded up-close and the disc is mastered at a higher volume than usual. I had to turn the volume down several notches for comfortable listening. But it provides the group tremendous presence and impact. It also allows absolutely nowhere to hide anything less than perfect playing. And I heard none. Anywhere.
This wonderful disc must be heard by anyone interested in excellent new music written by a true master; and by any lover of outstanding string quartet playing. I have several favorite groups, but the Attacca is right up there with the Pacifica in a category of exceptional accomplishment all their own.