The Stamic Quartet is best known for recordings of standard repertoire, but with this 2012 Supraphon release they give us an excellent survey of the four string quartets of the contemporary Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. The Stamic Quartet are Jindřich Pazdera and Josef Kekula (violins), Jan Pěruska (viola) and Petr Hejný (cello).
The String Quartet No. 1 (1970) is an early piece that Gubaidulina wrote before she had found her distinctive voice and, in retrospect, it comes across as a fairly dry exploration of extended techniques, chromaticism and microtonal writing that go beyond what the Soviet canon then permitted. It is disturbingly representative, a "metaphor for the impossibility of togetherness". The players begin with the same material but find it increasingly difficult to return to a unison. In live performance they gradually move their chairs away from each other to the four corners of the stage and by the end they are playing unsynchronized. We really miss out on this crucial aspect to the piece in a mere audio recording.
The following quartets represent Gubaidulina's mature style. This is marked by contemplative programmes, which are sometimes, though not here, overtly Orthodox Christian, and numerical mysticism, i.e. proportions determined by the Fibonacci Sequence and such. As the String Quartet No. 2 (1987) opens, the music pulses around a G held by the second violin on the open string. This single pitch is gradually embellished and strayed from by the other players. (The comparison that readily comes to mind is Jonathan Harvey's String Quartet No. 1.) Eventually D comes to join G as a central tone, and in Gubaidulina's meditative music this kind of shift is charged with dramatic power -- does it represent the Incarnation?
The String Quartet No. 3 (1987) is divided into two halves, of which the first is placed pizzicato and the second half with bows. A significant part of the pizzicato half is metreless, and in the bowed half one or two instruments are often playing aleatorically (a wavy line in the score) while the others play defined pitches. There's a memorable ending where each instrument in turn plays a glissando from C-sharp to the very top of its range.
The Stamic Quartet's main competition for the Second and Third are the Arditti Quartet's early 1990s recordings 1 2. The Stamic hold their own very well in the Second, though I slightly prefer the Ardittis. However, in the Third the Stamic manage to refine a piece I've found hard to get into, to the point that I wouldn't exactly rank it as one of Gubaidulina's masterpieces, but speaks to me more than the Arditti Quartet's recording.
With the String Quartet No. 4 (1994), Gubaidulina introduces a tape part consisting of the sounds of balls being bounced off the strings and conventional string playing shifted a quarter tone up. The live musicians then enter into dialogue with this prerecorded music, the quarter-tone gap creating a dialectic of light and darkness (coloured lights are also specified in the scoring, but we sadly miss out on that hearing just a CD). Gubaidulina wrote this for the Kronos Quartet, who recorded it on their CD Night Prayers. The Stamic Quartet give just as worthy a reading, but one clearly better informed by a long acquaintance with Gubaidulina's music, and here it sounds more like a successor to the Second and Third.
Finally, "Reflections on the Theme B-A-C-H" for string quartet (2002) maintains Gubaidulina's mature style but mixes in allusions to Baroque style in order to pay tribute to Gubaidulina's first and foremost inspiration. It may be seen as more austere than her earlier music in that there are moments where only one instrument plays while the others remain silent.
While the Arditti Quartet recordings may be better introductions to some of these quartets inasmuch as they have nice couplings (Bartók, Schnittke, Kurtág, Lutoslawski), fans of Gubaidulina would find this disc a great addition to their collection.