Harbison: The Rewaking; String Quartet No. 3; Fantasia on a Ground; Thanks Victor (plus bonus interview disc)

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COMPOSERS: Harbison
LABELS: Musica Omnia
WORKS: The Rewaking; String Quartet No. 3; Fantasia on a Ground; Thanks Victor (plus bonus interview disc)
PERFORMER: Lydian String Quartet; Dominique Labelle (soprano)
CATALOGUE NO: MO 0110
For many modern composers, the ideal string quartet texture is still essentially that set by the Viennese Classical masters two centuries ago: four voices in constant conversation, with the leader first among equals. Different as the quartets of Haydn and Elliott Carter are in style and spirit, you will find the same principle at work. But some have taken another view. In his Third Quartet the American Pulitzer

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Prize-winning composer John Harbison has come up with something which – on paper at least – seems to deny that ideal. Much of the material is chant-like, and however rich and complex the harmonies, whole stretches of the work go by with a minimum of rhythmic counterpoint. In places the four instruments move rather like synchronised swimmers – homogeneity rather than creative give-and-take. But Harbison finds subtle ways of ensuring that we hear the strings as individuals too – a slight hesitation between two players, or a hint of syncopation. Far from being dull, it contributes to a fascinating, alluring and ultimately moving musical argument. After this, Fantasia on a Ground could have been written to show that Harbison can do old-fashioned counterpoint, too. Fine as it is, it is eclipsed by the wintry song cycle The Rewaking, sung with elegant tenderness by soprano Dominique Labelle. Harbison is a composer who rewards repeated hearing, and the recorded interviews with him on the bonus CD help the ear find its way in – though as so often with composers, you may be left wondering as much about the things he doesn’t say as about what he reveals. An especially worthwhile issue. Stephen Johnson