Saariaho, Cage, Maderna

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Cage,Maderna,Saariaho
LABELS: ECM
ALBUM TITLE: Cikada String Quartet
WORKS: Nymphéa
PERFORMER: Cikada Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 472 4222
It’s extraordinary to think that Nymphéa is now almost 20 years old: Saariaho’s combination of instruments with live electronics comes up as fresh as ever, and with more sensuous beauty here than the rather gritty, in-your-face version by the Kronos Quartet. It’s partly the more resonant recording, which doesn’t separate the instruments so much in the stereo picture, but it’s also the vibrant quality of the playing from Norway’s premiere new music quartet – never ugly, even when asked to make extreme demands on the instruments, and always impeccably coloured, balanced and timed.

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There’s colour of a different sort in Cage’s Quartet – a monochrome that’s achieved by playing almost without vibrato. It’s one of the composer’s completely notated works, with nothing left to chance, but it relies very much on the silence between its modal-sounding phrases to work its austere spell. That’s especially the case in the third movement ‘Nearly Stationary’, which approaches a kind of stasis more associated with Morton Feldman.

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Maderna’s Quartet is the hardest nut to crack, with its fragmented phrases and restless rhythms and dynamics. But behind the notes the Cikadas’ deeply committed playing reveals glimpses of a dramatic personality that could only be Italian in its lyrical warmth. Riveting stuff. Martin Cotton