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on 6 August 2011
Harvey's first string quartet was written in 1977, the latest in 2003. The Arditti Quartet was the original performer of both works, along with the three other works included here. So this 2-disc set from the French Aeon label represents a long collaboration between the British composer (b. 1939) and Irvine Arditti, who formed his quartet in 1974. All of the other original members have since moved on and been replaced, but Arditti remains, lending his unique insights to these performances. Harvey's own background as a cellist is brought to bear throughout.

An earlier Arditti Quartet recorded Quartets No. 1 and 2 in the early '90s in their Montaigne series. This new set includes Quartets 1, 2 and 3 on the first disc. They were written in 1977, 1988 and 1995, and chart Harvey's exploration of harmonics, overtones, and other aspects of sound that came to known as "spectralism," most closely associated with Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail of France. Interestingly Harvey's impetus to move in this direction came from his immersion in the music of Stockhausen, who he studied with briefly at the Darmstadt Summer Course in 1966. (He also studied at greater length with Milton Babbitt, the American serialist composer.) Harvey's music thus occupies a space intersecting with both serialism and spectralism. Harvey has also worked with IRCAM in Paris since 1980, applying his spectralist theories in the form of electro-acoustic music utilizing the state-of-the-art facilities and personnel.

So much for the theoretical background. What does this avant-garde music sound like? After many listenings, I can report that it can be opaque and elusive, but never less than strangely compelling and/or compellingly strange. Quartet No. 1 explores the harmonic field of D, gradually expanding from that starting point via gradations of instrumental timbre. Intensity builds to a crescendo of dissonant sounds and then subsides, forming an arc of over 18 minutes in this recording. Quartet No. 2 does not rest in any tonal center, but contrasts chords marked "warm/hot" to those marked "cool/cold," as well as "masculine/feminine." The work moves through three movements over 16 minutes, with dance-like patterns in the first movement and calmer, chorale-like patterns in the central movement, producing a melody high in the cello which fights for survival in the third movement as the cello interacts exuberantly with the others until it suddenly dissipates. (Thanks to Arnold Whittall's liner notes for some of these details.) Quartet No. 3 (14'28) sounds markedly different from the first two, which share a roughly similar soundworld. Over its arc of development it is marked by passages of ghostly arpeggiations, murmurings, and tremolos, and the introduction of silences, or the subtraction of sounds, which gives the piece a more open and expansive feel than its predecessors.

The second disc includes the two most recent of Harvey's works for strings in reverse order. The String Trio (13'26) of 2004 is followed by one of Harvey's masterpieces, the String Quartet No. 4 with live electronics (31'42) of 2003. The Trio begins in a Bartok-like folk-music manner, and contrasts the pastoral/rustic to the sacred. It concludes in a forceful melodic passage. Given how soon after the 4th Quartet this piece was written, one can't help but think that it represented a break, a turn toward something lighter, after the sequence of four major string quartets, but it is a superb work.

I have not always been impressed with Harvey's use of electronics. "Madonna of Winter & Spring" for orchestra and synthesizers is excellent, but I think the electronics mars his 1982 "Bhakti," an extended cycle for chamber ensemble. For the most part I think his spectral explorations have been better realized with acoustic instrumentation. But with the 4th Quartet, he and his IRCAM collaborator Gilbert Nouno create a stunning synthesis of the strings and electronics, performed live by Nouno. The piece moves through five sections, "tracing the evolution of a 'personality' that achieves its fullest realisation in a final section where all four instruments climb to the ecstatic peak of what Harvey ... has called 'the paradise garden,' linking that image with another, of the Buddhist 'pure land' -- 'a state of mind beyond suffering where there is no grasping.'" In addition to the masterful use of electronics, including spatial movement that a good stereo or headphones is necessary to detect, the piece is dramatically punctuated by silences, underscoring the fragility and impermanence of that which is. In other words, this is an excellent Buddhist composition!

I should not have taken so long to review this 2009 set, it is among Harvey's best, along with the excellent NMC orchestral disc of 2008.
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on 11 November 2009
Following a recent exposure of Jonathan Harvey's music on BBC R3's composer of the week, I finally decided to sample some of his work. This set of the String Quartets with the String Trio is particularly appealing, especially in the second disk where Harvey toys with an Irish Jig in the String Trio, and the 4th Quartet (with Electronics) is particularly sublime when one reaches the calm, beautiful, almost transcendental coda of the piece which seems (to my ears)to be a 21st Century homage to the music of the English pastoralists from the first half ot the 20th century. Lovely stuff! One of the best sets I've ever heard from the Arditti Quartet.
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on 1 April 2013
Brilliant recording, it made a great present for my husband. It was fantastic to find such a well respected quartet had recorded these pieces.
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on 28 July 2009
The Arditti Quartet are well known for exploring modern repertoire, and this double CD was of music by a composer I had notr previously encountered. As is often the case, the string quartet medium brings out compositional qualities more than other instrumentations. On the basis of this recording, I will be looking out for other works by Harvey.
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