Babel: The Calidore Quartet explores the very nature of communication

Babel: The Calidore Quartet explores the very nature of communication

Difficult to know what to focus on here: all three pieces have their own special claims. Schumann's string quartets remain, surely, the most cruelly neglected by any major composer? Then there's the magnificence of Shostakovich's Ninth Quartet, not to mention the fresh, contemporary voice of the Pulitzer-wining composer Caroline Shaw (born 1982). The three pieces are all connected via the urge to communicate on a very human level - something or urgent importance in our increasingly insular, lockdown society. As a concept, it mushrooms out into a multitude of questions about how music and language interact, how and what music can communicate via the voiceless medium of a string quartet. Semioticians could have a ball. One thing is for sure, and that's the urgent communicative abilities of the Calidore Quartet, whose members seem to meld the impetuosity and freshness of yourth with the capacity for meditation on music and its meaning at the most profound level - and the very relation of this question to mankind's present predicaments.

The American Calidore Quartet's career has been launched by a number of awards, including the accolade of being the first North American recipient of a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship. The warm yet ever-questing world of Robert Schumann is the perfect starting point for this disc. Why Schumann's Quartets don't get out more into the concert hall is beyond me: they lag way behind Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Shostakovich and the like. And yet Schumann's lyric impulse, at heart song-based, shines through the masterly Third Quartet, heard here in a performance of exemplary ardour by the young Calidore Quartet.  

Schumann's three Quartets, Op. 41 were composed in 1842. We hear the shadow of Beethoven in the slow Adagio molto, but in the scampering Assai agitato, with its contrasts of the most internal lyricism, the world is Schumann's own. Here is a performance of that Scherzo made for Presto Music around the release of this disc:

Schumann String Quartet Op. 41/3 (ii)

And just listen to how the music internalises for the Adagio molto (here the Calidore Quartet in concert at Soka University):

Schumann String Quartet Op. 41/3 (iii)

Schumann's writing in his quartets have perhaps been more admired in academic circles than by lsiteners (Julie Hedges Brown in The Journal of Musicology 30/3, Summer 2013 argues for Schumann's reinvention of inherited forms in his 1842 chamber music, including in this quartet). This tensile, alive performance of the Third Quartet should go some way towards redressing the balance.

The music of Pulitzer Award-winning Caroline Shaw (born 1982, and who won the prize in 2013, the youngest composer ever to do so) is no stranger to recontextualisation: her Gustave le Gray for piano is an homage to Chopin's Mazurka, Op. 17/4, for example (the piece has been recorded by its dedicatee, Amy Yang, on MSR) while another piece, Orange, invites reflection on the familiar. Here is - pardon the pun - a segment of the latter piece performed by the Attacca Quartet (it has also been recorded by the Jasper String Quartet):

The piece presented here, Three Essays (Nimrod; Echo; Ruby) is topical anew today. Let me explain: it was written in response to the unrest around the 2006 US Predidential election (an unrest which seems if anything heightened today). The abusage of language to confound and confuse, to use words as a scattergun weapon, continues to have uncomfortable resonances. Premiered at he BBC Proms in 2018, Three Essays presents a composer whose voice is at one passionate yet systematic. Composers tend to shy away from reductive descriptions of their music (understandably) but such methods offer the reader a way in, so it is apt perhaps to note a certain minimalist slant to certain sections of "Nimrod" (the title refers to the person who overseaw of the construction of the Tower of Babel in the Christian Bible). One can perhaps note that in imitating the paths of spoken language, there might be a link to Janáček's speech-rhythms, also.

Caroline Shaw, Three Essays: Nimrod

In contrast, the Expressionist, yearning melodic lines of "Echo," the second Essay, initially belie the philosophical background here, which takes in an echo chamber of discourse plus the "echo" function in the Hypertext Preprocessor programming language (PHP); it is also a meditation on the looping opinions on social media, which leads to ultimate musical cacophany and chaos!.  The interaction between background ideas and musical surface is fascinating:

Caroline Shaw, Three Essays: Echo

The third piece brings in yet an other computer programming language, Ruby (not to be confused with Ruby on the Rails: although perhaps a piece inspired by that computer language could potentially quote Steve Reich's Different Trains?!). Its title also refers to the gemstone ruby, and as a movement it brings together the different strands of the first two pieces. It's an involvingly complex musical tapestry which nevertheless has a lightness (listen to the wonderful pizzicato section near the end):

Caroline Shaw, Three Essays: Ruby

One might have thought that after all of that, Shostakovich might come as something of a relief. Until one realises that seething beneath the surface of Shostakovich's music offers another multiplicity of meanings (often political, and deliberately hidden). After the furore caused by his magnificnt Symphony No. 13, "Babi Yar" (surely topic of a future post), Shostakovich retreated to the initmate world of the string quartet and furnished the World with a piece of concision and, often, delicacy. The use of kletzmer elements is pronounced (a symbol, perhaps, of repression). At the centre, though, the third of the five movements, is a heady Allegretto - a favourite tempo indication of the composer's, seemingly promising something light, in reality often providing the opposite. Here's the Calidore Quartet in this movement on another promotional video for this release:

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 9 (iii)

There are, of course, many, many noteworthy performances of Shostakovich Ninth String Quartet (interestingly enough, an article chronicling the Beethoven String Quartet's close relationship with Shostakovich has just been published); the Fitzwilliam Quartet's cycle lives long in thsi writer's heart. The Calidore's performance has a real function in situ of course, being a reflection on codes in music; but their performance has its own stature, from the frenzy of the movement above to the stunning cello cadenzas in the finale (courtesy of the fabulous Estelle Choi) and the wonderful combination of discipline and abandon in the finale (especial praise perhaps for the two violins' ability to maintain tuning under duress!).

A most stimulating release. Incidentally, the Calidore String Quartet's website is here.