Rihm: String Quartet No. 5; String Quartet No. 6 String Quartet No. 7; String Quartet No. 8; String Quartet No. 9

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COMPOSERS: Rihm
LABELS: Col legno
ALBUM TITLE: Rihm: String Quartets
WORKS: String Quartet No. 5; String Quartet No. 6 String Quartet No. 7; String Quartet No. 8; String Quartet No. 9
PERFORMER: Minguet Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: WWE 1CD 20212 and WWE 1CD 20213
Wolfgang Rihm’s string quartets – there are 12 numbered works to date – rank alongside Elliott Carter’s five and Brian Ferneyhough’s four as the most important contributions to the genre in our time. These discs continue the Minguet Quartet’s projected complete survey; the first volume – Nos 1 to 4 – was released in 2003. With the exception of the Ninth Quartet, all these works date from the 1980s when Rihm explored extreme registers and dynamics, consciously paring down his style and eliminating the neo-romantic expressiveness of his early pieces.

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All those qualities are obvious in the Fifth and Sixth Quartets, from 1981-83 and 1984 respectively; their fragile textures are peppered with explosive accents, sudden silences and tempo changes, and apt to lapse into passages of tonal purity to provide moments of relaxation. But Rihm makes this volatile world cohere remarkably well. The Minguet sustains the argument of the vast, single-movement Sixth with wonderful concentration, making every gesture count. While detailed enough, the sound on both discs is not always ideally involving.

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The Seventh, Eighth and Ninth (1985, 1987-88 and 1992-93) are all single-movement structures too, but more concise and more concerned with expanding the sound world of the quartet, not only by employing a huge range of string effects but by introducing other sound sources – a wood block in the Seventh, shouts and tearing paper in the Eighth – while the surface of the music more eruptive than ever, its mood swings even more pronounced. All, though, are extraordinary pieces; the Minguet takes the technical demands in their stride, yet project their emotional intensity with wonderful vividness. Andrew Clements