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Eleanor Alberga was born in Kingston, Jamaica. According to what her mother told her, at the age of five she asked for piano lessons and a few years later said that she hoped to become a concert pianist. Just a few years later she began to compose short pieces. She studied at the Jamaican School of Music. In her mid- teens she began to play for dance classes. In 1970 a scholarship enabled her to study at the Royal College of Music in London (where she won several piano prizes). She did, indeed, work as a pianist (while continuing to compose) after graduation from the Royal Academy. However, since 2001 she has concentrated exclusively on composition. She regards herself as largely self-taught as a composer, though some time after she had started writing, she was grateful to be able to have ‘consultations’, rather than lessons as such, with figures such as Robert Saxton, Julian Anderson and Harrison Birtwistle.
Alberga’s own musical tastes and influences are nothing if not varied. On Spotify there is a playlist she put together, with the title ‘Music that speaks to Eleanor’. It includes (there is no significance to the order of this list) piano music by Messiaen, Rachmaninov and Robert Schumann, orchestral music by Shostakovich, Walton and Stravinsky, operas by Berg, Purcell and Birtwistle, chamber music by Britten, Bartók, Messiaen, Beethoven, Bach and Britten, plus Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’ (!) and Jamaican folk songs.
Naturally, Alberga’s String Quartets are not quite as eclectic as that list is, but they do demonstrate a considerable range of mood and method; they are, however, uniformly interesting. Composed between 1993 and 2001, these quartets belong essentially to the period before Alberga concentrated full-time on composition – though they certainly do not sound like the work of a part-time composer!
Alberga has said that Bartók was the first composer with whom she “fell madly in love”. His quartets might serve as a pointer to what to expect from her quartets (though they are in no sense derivative or even directly influenced by the great Hungarian master). Still, Alberga shares with Bartók a sophisticated sense of rhythm, and a strong sense of form which yet embraces the expressive power of dissonance.
The Second Quartet was commissioned by the Smith Quartet, who gave its premiere in 1994. The First and Third Quartets were commissioned by the Maggini Quartet, who premiered both, the First in September 2003, the Third in February 2001. Perhaps, in the normal course of things, that Quartet might have recorded this album. Why that did not happen may be suggested by the statement which closes Alborga’s booklet essay: “I dedicate this album to the memory of my dear and much lamented friend David Angel (1954-2017), long-time second violinist of the Maggini Quartet.”
It would be wrong to think of the Ensemble Arcadiana as mere substitutes. The group grew from the Arcadia Festival, an October event, centered on Ludlow and the nearby villages, which began in 2010. The co-directors of this Festival are Eleanor Alberga and her husband, violinist Thomas Bowes, who live in the Herefordshire countryside. On this disc, the Ensemble Arcadiana consists of Thomas Bowes (first violin), Andres Kaljuste (viola) and Jonathan Swensen (cello), joined as second violin by Jacqueline Shave in string Quartet No.1 and by Oscar Perks in Nos. 2 and 3. The performances are thoroughly impressive, full of spirit and adventure, and with immaculate intonation and ensemble.
Of her First Quartet, Alberga tells us that she “was propelled into an intense burst of creativity by a lecture on physics […] what grabbed me was the realization that all matter – including our physical bodies – is made of the same stuff: star dust. So the first movement might be called ‘a fugue without a subject,’ as particles of this stardust swirl around each other, go their separate ways, collide, or merge. The second movement might be described as ‘stargazing from outer space,’ while the finale re-established gravity and earthbound energy.” Alberga, as can be seen here, writes of her music with such concise lucidity that a reviewer is tempted to feel that there is nothing left to say. For me, at least, an added attraction of this work is that I happen, at the time of writing, to be reading Leonard Shlain’s brilliant and thought-provoking book, Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light (1991). Though, as its title may suggest, Shlain’s book is mainly concerned with the affinities between the Visual Arts and modern physics, it does also have something to say about music. That this should be amongst my current reading perhaps predisposed me to be especially intrigued and impressed by Alberga’ s First Quartet.
The first movement begins with what I would describe as aural imagery of dispersal. Thereafter that sense of diffusion and scattering, of complex patterns of movement which elude exact definition, is evoked in the endlessly shifting instrumental textures and by the way in which the smoother episodes played detaché are countered by a series of mini-explosions from the strings played martellato. The result is almost dizzying but is also centripetal, drawing in the listener’s mind towards an implied centre. Nor do the Ensemble Arcadiana ignore the instructions “sehr lebhaft” (very lively) and “Swing it Man” in the movement’s delightfully multi-lingual playing/tempo instructions. Things are slower and more peaceful in the second movement. Its lyricism, however, does not seem to imply a specifically human voice or voices, but to be the capturing of some trans-human sense of beauty, as the sense of a secure harmonic centre comes and goes. The writing for the first violin is especially lovely here. Is it entirely fanciful to think of this as articulating what earlier ages would have called the music of the spheres? The third movement (‘Frantically driven yet playful’), more a matter of earth, juxtaposes in dialogue the energy of the first movement and the more placid lyricism of the second. Not for the last time in these quartets Eleanor Alberga’s use of pizzicato is strikingly effective.
The Second Quartet is in one movement, and uses as its material what, as Alberga herself puts it, “the listener will hear in the first two seconds […] this short motive is treated to all manner of variation – inversions, expansions, and so on – and is present in some form throughout the 15 minutes of the piece.” I hear the quartet (not having seen a score) as structured in three main sections. The first is full of energy and its rhythms are frequently syncopated; in the second section the variations of the generative motive are generally slower and more tranquil. The work ends with a passionately affirmative section. This is a very accomplished, highly compressed use of the string quartet form.
The Third Quartet is a more spacious (and perhaps a more directly emotional) work, with its four movements (the first of them over 11 minutes long) approximating the most familiar of String Quartet forms; they are marked Moderato, Scherzo, Adagio and Allegro. Alberga makes more systematic use of serial techniques in this later quartet (written seven or eight years after Nos. 1 and 2), especially in the third movement. The opening movement builds from a hushed beginning. Soon we hear Alberga’s characteristically imaginative use of pizzicato, reminiscent of the First Quartet. The interplay between violins and cello is largely conducted within the idiom heard in her earlier quartets. In the Scherzo, the movement of the violins, in its swirling shapes, again reminds one of the First Quartet’s opening movement, though the textures now are generally richer and there is greater timbral variety. It is in the Adagio where one finds the most distinctive and remarkable writing. Once again, Alberga’s booklet notes describe her music exceptionally well: “In the slow movement the tonal ideas from Movement 1 start reappearing, and in the central psalm-like passage, the twelve tones of each voice are treated in their most consonant and melodic form. The climax of the movement harks back to the scherzo material from which we are brought again to the first movement. This third movement ends with C major under arpeggiated chords. The Maggini quartet described it as like the play of sunlight on water.” While happy with the Maggini quartet’s description of the movement’s close, I want to add that the whole movement is one of remarkable and singular beauty, in which considerable complexity creates a surprisingly simple power. This movement alone would, as the saying goes, be worth the price of admission. But, it should be said, it would not be quite so powerful if heard in isolation. It harks back to the first and second movements, and material from it is developed in the closing Allegro. It can perhaps best be regarded as the keystone of the quartet’s architecture, which locks everything else into its right place.
These three quartets constitute a considerable achievement, various yet unified by the nature of their composer’s mind and temperament. Prior to listening to this thoroughly rewarding CD, I had only heard Alberga’s work in snatches, as it were, as in her short piece for solo cello, ‘Ride Through’, the brief but intriguing piano piece, ‘If the silver bird could speak’, and her orchestral work Arise, Athena!, which opened the Last Night of the Proms in 2015. I enjoyed all of these, which is why I was keen to hear this disc. It revealed to me a composer of greater range and depth than I had previously realized. These three vibrant quartets (I very much hope that Ms. Alberga will return to the form in the future) deserve to be heard by – and will reward – all who value the String Quartet and its continued vitality.