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Péter EÖTVÖS (b 1944)
The Sirens Cycle (2015/16) [36:31]
Korrespondenz (Szenen für Streichquartett) (1992)[14:52]
Calder Quartet (Benjamin Jacobson, Andrew Bulbrook, violins; Jonathan Moerschel, viola; Eric Byers, cello), Audrey Luna, soprano
rec. 2016, IRCAM Studios, Paris (Sirens); BMC Studio, Budapest (Korrespondez)
Texts and translations included

The BMC label continues to do Peter Eötvös proud (I think this is its twelfth release devoted exclusively to his music) by releasing this disc of his two string quartet works. Korrespondenz, from 1992, represents an intriguing attempt to transcribe elements of the correspondence between Mozart and his father Leopold during the former’s ultimately ill-fated sojourn in Paris during 1778. The Sirens Cycle is a very recent work, on the other hand, that also ‘plays’ with literature, in this case the references made to the Sirens by three literary giants, modern and ancient, Joyce, Homer and Kafka. I feel that both pieces ultimately satisfy after a couple of hearings, albeit in very different terms. The young American Calder Quartet excel in both works; for the most recent one they are joined by the audacious soprano Audrey Luna, who captivated this listener at least in her thrilling performance as Ariel on DVD in the New York Met’s production of Thomas Adčs’ ‘The Tempest’ some years back.

Although it comes second on the programme I would like to consider the earlier, purely instrumental, Korrespondenz first. It is much the shorter of the two works, consisting of a pair of brief ‘tasters’ followed by a more extended finale. I have read reviews of both live performances and a previous BMC recording of this piece suggesting it’s rather diffuse and incoherent. I certainly didn’t find it that way. Having discovered the conceit behind Korrespondenz before hearing it, I admit I had quite low expectations, but to my pleasant surprise I found the work entertaining, plausible and, crucially, convincing in sonic terms. Apropos the technical strategies employed by Eötvös, extracts from the correspondence between Mozart pčre et fils have been selected and vowels or diphthongs within matched to particular harmonic intervals. From this he has essentially derived a ‘musical vowel dictionary’ (in the words of the booklet) which encompasses the whole range of notes within a string quartet. I’m oversimplifying this of course, but broadly Wolfgang’s words are ‘spoken’ by the viola and Leopold’s by the cello. The composer has thus provided a set of defined strictures in which to work, and notwithstanding these the character of the individual dramas played out within the texts do seem to create associations for the listener, sometimes humorous, sometimes emotional. In the first movement, Dad tries to warn his son off the soprano he currently fancies while pressuring him to finish a flute concerto; in the second, the son beefs about the local (Parisian) apathy towards his music: The long complicated finale approaches the emotional hub of the work – the son’s revelation that mum, who was chaperoning him, has died – a fact he’s kept to himself for some time. This is represented by a long, tortuous, upward glissando. I found Korrespondenz consistently interesting to listen to. It’s superbly played by the Calders and sympathetically recorded.

In fact I found that this earlier quartet was recorded with a bit more air and ambience around the instruments than the later work; it was actually recorded at BMC’s own studio in Budapest whereas its successor was laid down at IRCAM, in what sounds like a drier acoustic. I found this a little disconcerting especially given the huge range of colours provided by the voice of the wonderful Audrey Luna during The Sirens Cycle. As the composer was involved in the mixing and mastering of both works there is perhaps good reason for this, but it has eluded me. This piece was well received at its recent premiere and repeated acquaintance with it on this disc confirms it as a major work. It’s also a very entertaining one. Its predecessor has been described as an instrumental opera and the presence of a soprano in the new work points to the designation ‘mini-opera’ here also. A 1917 short story by Kafka, The Silence of the Sirens, provided Eötvös with the initial impetus – in Kafka’s tale Homer’s original is subverted in a number of ways. In any case, Eötvös settled on a structure where the Kafka tale is quoted in the finale, Homer in the penultimate movement whereas the first half of the work is effectively a mini-opera in itself, constituting seven brief episodes which allude to Sirens, which is Chapter 11 of Joyce’s Ulysses. These episodes involve selected extracts of Joycean stream-of-consciousness text which conjure up a range of verbal images for the soprano to exploit and the listener to interpret. Audrey Luna and the Calders conjure up a wild rumpus of extravagant proportions, a coloratura carnival which Luna executes with tremendous skill and no small sense of fun. I do feel a warmer sound image would have perhaps created a yet more compelling experience, but there is no doubting Eötvös’s imaginative writing for voice and instruments. The booklet note suggests fleeting associations between shards of Bartokian folk styling and Irish pub music in the third movement, and the reference to Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody is obvious in the sixth (and rather amusing).

A brief interlude separates this first part of the work from the Homer and Kafka panels. In the former, Luna intones the extract from Book 12 of the Odyssey in its original Greek and produces a marked dramatic contrast between the arcane solemnity of the narrative and the Siren’s alluring entreaties to the hero. The German of the final Kafka movement is characterised by an almost smoky, jazz-like countenance. While this work is designated as a String Quartet by the title of this disc, and although the Calders produce a fantastic panoply of colour and texture, Audrey Luna is the hero of the performance. The work is a worthy successor to the many astonishing vocal collages and tapestries Luciano Berio provided for Cathy Berberian and others.

We are alive at a time where we are fortunate indeed to have several composers blessed with the imagination and will to extend the string quartet repertoire in ways that could barely have been imagined before the start of the millennium – I am thinking of figures like Adčs, Abrahamsen, Saariaho and, most certainly on this showing, Peter Eötvös. His admirers will doubtless snap up this disc regardless but it is wholeheartedly recommended to anyone interested in the string quartet medium.

Richard Hanlon



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