Schafer: String Quartets, Nos 8–12
The Canadian acoustic ecologist and author of Soundscape, R Murray Schafer (b1933), is also a composer of a substantial and distinguished oeuvre. In this CD set of five of his 12 Quartets (Nos 8-12), the Montreal-based Molinari Quartet respond to his exquisitely sensitised, idiomatic string writing with rich and engaging performances.
As one would expect from someone fascinated by soundscape, Schafer’s music offers a depth of field and textural scope that reaches far beyond the confines of the string quartet. In No. 9 the haunting voice of a child singing a wordless melody is interwoven with intricate string parts, as are the sounds of children laughing and playing, lending it a poignancy that is never sentimental, particularly in the dangerous roar of a manic playground.
Debussy lurks behind No. 10, Winter Birds, its delicate, shadowy atmosphere riven with the cries of birds and coyote yowls. One can feel the cold in Schafer’s static, white harmonies, hoarse textures and shivering harmonics – there’s no need for the narrated description. No. 11 is an intense, almost claustrophobic statement, with obsessive waves of colliding lines, and sharply distinctive movements. The strings’ eerie wailing is echoed in the finale by the alien breath of an only-just-perceptible Aeolian harp.
Quartet No. 12 is perhaps the most enigmatic of all, marked by keening, sliding chords, under voluptuous, looping violin solos. Originally conceived as if several quartets were being performed in different rooms, it does feel as if doors are opening rapidly on multiple events, but its rondo-like structure brings coherence. The ingenious, Chinese-inflected No. 8 (a reissue from 2003) is the most vivaciously characterised work in the set.