Julia Wolfe: String Quartets

Review by: ClassicsToday

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 8

New York-based composer Julia Wolfe is one of the founders of Bang on a Can, so it’s not surprising to find a collection of her three string quartets on the organization’s label, Cantaloupe Music. Although in recent years she has gravitated toward mixing acoustic, electronic, and amplified instruments, this disc is strictly concerned with the traditional string quartet. Even so, Wolfe’s compositional language references rock’s crunching power as much as it does the string quartet canon. Although the works aren’t presented chronologically on the recording, tracing them in that order provides an insight into Wolfe’s development, refinement, and tightening of her ideas.

The earliest work, 1991’s Four Marys, was inspired by the Appalachian dulcimer and its signature rising twang, a gesture that Wolfe repeats countless times in the piece’s first half. The elegiac second half is rather removed from what precedes it, and the concluding portion clearly evokes late Beethoven. Early that Summer, from 1993, anticipates the more sharply realized Dig Deep from 1995. These latter two quartets’ plangent feeling is intensified by Wolfe’s closely crowded harmonic clusters–tensions rise, are sustained for an improbable length of time, and only occasionally are released.

While all three ensembles perform these works with deep commitment and fluency, Ethel proves the most spirited, and also benefits from the more full-bodied sound: the other two quartets suffer from thinner, dryer sonics. The disc is just under 37 minutes long, but Wolfe’s compositions are so dense and so high-powered that this length proves to be just right. Having said that, however, it’s worth noting that the small, independent Cantaloupe is selling this at full price. Two-thirds of the disc consists of reissues–the same recordings of Four Marys and Early That Summer first appeared on the now-defunct Point Music label in 1996 on a Wolfe collection titled “Arsenal of Democracy”. Both the label’s aesthetic and economic considerations are quite reasonable, but I fear that listeners not already acquainted with Wolfe might shy away because of the sheer cost involved.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: this one

JULIA WOLFE - Dig Deep; Four Marys; Early That Summer


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