Saturday, April 27, 2013

Engegard Quartet's String Quartets Vol. III on 2L Recordings CD/SACD

Browsing through my classical LP collection, I can find numerous examples of programmes that seek to contrast the older schools of thought with modern pieces that are far more dissonant and atonal. Many of these recordings were from the '50s and '60s, and the somber thought that immediate arises is that in 2013, we are as temporally distant from some of those recordings as they were from the original compositions. While it's discouraging to think that classical music has not continued this amazing arc of progression over the last few decades--in many cases we have gone backwards--it's rewarding to see that old habits die hard in the classical world. Accomplished classical ensembles still strive to illustrate those differences, and in fascinating and intelligent ways. In the case of these recent classical recordings from 2L Recordings in Norway, the musicians aren't just satisfied with dramatic juxtapositions of musical styles, but with the profound similarities that bridge across decades and even centuries.

Engegardkvartetten. What an incredible word, from an incredible language, for an incredible group of musicians. Known in English by the slightly less exotic moniker of the Engegard Quartet, this string quartet has just produced its third recording for 2L--this one comparing a 1772 quartet from Joseph Haydn to a 1992 duplex for violin and viola from Arne Nordheim and a 1934 string quartet from Bela Bartok. (The first volume offered Haydn, Solberg and Grieg, and the second matched Beethoven, Nordheim and Bartok.) In past century-spanning surveys from the 2L, the transitions between the pieces weren't obvious and much as seamless and logical, with a continuity of tone that made perfect sense for knowledgeable listeners. String Quartets Vol. III, however, is a sonic roller-coaster ride that leaps out at you and challenges you connect the dots. Are Arvid Engegard, Atle Sponberg, Juliet Joplin and Adrian Brendel daring you to follow, or is there a deeper and more obscure agenda?

Clues abound in the liner notes and on the 2L website. The Haydn piece, String Quartet in G major, op. 77, is descibed as a "joyful opening," while the Nordheim piece, the aforementioned Duplex for violin and viola, is accurately presented as "an extreme work...filled with contrasts, virtuosity and beauty." (Bartok's String Quartet no. 5 is only described as an "undiputable masterpiece" and probably serves as the proverbial bridge between the first two works.) It becomes the listener's duty to cross those bridges, to discover Nordheim's awe of Bartok despite the fact that quartet leader Arvid Engegard feels the two pieces are "far apart aesthetically." The gaps are harder to fill between the delightful Haydn and the other two works, the only similarity seems to that the Haydn piece and the Bartok piece are both late works in their respective canons. In the interview included in the liner notes, Endegard merely explains that the quartet wanted to play pieces that were close to their heart.

Where this enigmatic program shines, however, is in the partnership between the recording itself and the performances. Once again, and this is becoming old news to me, the incredible sound quality brings these mysteries out into the sunlight, so to speak. The placement of the musicians in the three pieces vary in interesting ways--the players sit slightly farther apart in the Bartok than they do in the Haydn piece, and you can hear this increased spacing on an excellent audio system. The Nordheim piece, however, is performed by only two of the members, and their contributions are virtuostic and demanding to the point where you may still think four musicians are on the stage.

That's the 2L way, always throwing something into the cauldron for those with developed senses. It's wrong to blithely recommend such difficult music since I've chased my share of audiophiles out of exhibit rooms with this type of musical fare. But recommend it I will, because you will never hear a better recording of a string quartet in a more revealing venue in your life. Are you the type of classical music lover who can appreciate Haydn and Bartok in a single sitting without suffering from whiplash? Then brother, I have a stupendous recording to share with you.

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