Harvey: String Quartets Nos 1-4; String Trio

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COMPOSERS: Harvey
LABELS: Aeon
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1-4; String Trio
PERFORMER: Arditti Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: AECD 0976 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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If Jonathan Harvey’s name is not synonymous with the string quartet, this set suggests that it should be. His four works for the medium span his career thus far, forming a coherent progression of musical thought, while retaining an individuality of temperament.

The striking and gregarious String Trio does not quite follow the same path, so while welcome, it may be best heard entirely separately.

Harvey’s fascination with the nature of sound allied to a sense of spirituality shines through the Quartets. The First (1977), for instance, periodically analyses and diffracts individual pitches in a way that might be described as spectral, though also sounds like an agitated version of Scelsi.

The Arditti Quartet’s committed and refined playing is as superlative as ever, reflecting their long-lasting association with Harvey’s music. The collective holding of breath in the middle of the Second Quartet is haunting in its beauty as the cello’s gossamer thin, stratospherically high melody hangs in the air before the oncoming storm.

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The Fourth Quartet adds a new dimension. Fragments of playing undergo metamorphosis through live electronics and flit around the listener, as if making the ultimate response to questions about the nature of string sound raised in the First and Third quartets. While the SACD sound is wonderful in the earlier quartets, in the Fourth it provides a sensational aural tour de force. Christopher Dingle