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11 December 2014

Unfold: fresh approaches to older works

Unfold: fresh approaches to older works

Michael Hooper gives some background to a new recording, by the Kreutzer Quartet, of four Australian string quartets from the 1960s and 1970s. The recording is part of an ARC project researching music composed in Australia during this period. Unfold CD is available through the AMC Shop.

Unfold is the Kreutzer Quartet's new recording of music by Don Banks (String Quartet, 1975), Nigel Butterley (String Quartet no. 1, 1965), Richard Meale (String Quartet no. 1, 1974) and Felix Werder (Quartett 8 Consort music, 1964). This is the first recording to be released of both Meale's and Werder's quartets, and the first recording of Banks's and Butterley's quartets since the 1970s. The liner notes to the CD include program notes for the pieces, and so I want here to give a sense of why the recording was made, and what the Kreutzer Quartet bring to the performances.

The idea behind this recording was to approach anew pieces that were composed some time ago, and to begin to explore what new ideas they can offer. The Kreutzer Quartet is one of Europe's leading quartets, and they are particularly well known for their performances of new repertoire, and for the collaborations that they have undertaken with composers such as Michael Finnissy, David Matthews, George Rochberg, Elliott Schwartz, and Judith Weir.

I proposed this recording project to the Kreutzer Quartet for several reasons. The first is that I knew their playing well, from their performances and recordings of recent music. The quartet are based at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where I worked for a time, and I was fortunate to attend many of their public and private performances and seminars. Their interests are extremely wide-ranging, and I wanted to hear how Butterley's quartet would sound when played by a quartet intimately familiar with Michael Tippett's quartets, for example, or whether the Kreutzer Quartet's knowledge of Roberto Gerhard's music might change how I heard Banks's quartet.

The second reason is that a revitalisation of these quartets necessarily begins with a fresh approach, and I knew that the performers would be keen to form new and creative connections. As I looked through the programs in which the premieres of these works took place I was reminded of the programs put together by Peter Sheppard Skærved, the Kreutzer Quartet's first violinist, in which contrasts between very different compositions are often used to draw out surprising associations. Banks's, Butterley's, Meale's and Werder's quartets are not unified by one compositional practice, and the idea of them sitting side-by-side opened up the potential for revealing new connections, and therefore bringing new meaning to the music.

The third reason is that the Quartet has commissioned much music that comes with no score, where the performers have to negotiate their way through independent parts. It means that the ensemble is thoroughly practised in taking risky decisions in performance. Meale's and Werder's pieces come as a score alone, and the relationships between instruments is often unclear. I knew the Kreuzter Quartet would explore creative solutions to these works.

Some of the music is particularly difficult to work with. Werder's score, for example, is put together like a collage, with fragments cut and pasted from a variety of sources (including other published scores), and the ink flowed from his pen with such facility that it is often very difficult to read. It is a score that deliberately slows performers down, and it poses challenges that require extensive decision-making with the pencil as well as with the bow.

The Quartet's dedication to performing these pieces was more than I could have wished for, and, for example, their path through the labyrinth of Meale's quartet found solutions to the problems that have prevented it from being more frequently performed. In the case of Werder's and Meale's pieces, the recording captures the excitement of the process of overcoming their difficulties - of the process of discovery - that comes from working without a perfect set of parts.

The recording took place in a church outside London. The work on the days of recording was very different to that which was undertaken in rehearsal, and was more like a process of compressing multiple performances into a few days. Each of these performances was more ambitious that the last, and so the recording is of performances that are fresh and new.

(Banks's Sequence for solo cello, comes as a bonus track with the online 192kHz/24bit version of the recording, which will be available soon.)

Further links

Unfold - Kreutzer Quartet (Move) - see more details and purchase copies at $25 (AMC Online). AMC members get a 10% discount.

Dr Michael Hooper is Lecturer and ARC Research Fellow with the School of the Arts and Media, University of NSW.




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