Spektral Stimulation

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 10

When this release was presented to me for review, I politely declined Spektral Quartet’s invitation to determine my own playlist using a deck of cards, à la John Cage making composing choices via the I Ching. I can do the same thing with my computer’s random play button, and no one will be any the wiser. The point is that you don’t need a gimmick to realize that the range, the diversity, and the eclecticism of the selections speak for themselves. More importantly, the Spektral Quartet manages to lock into each composer’s sound world.

To be sure, more expansive and genial readings of Brahms’ C minor Quartet can be had (for example, the Alban Berg Quartett, the Quartetto Italiano), yet Spektral’s lean textured, contrapuntally clear outer movements and deliberately held-back Allegretto hold comparable validity. Shapely nuance and intelligent use of portamento and vibrato enliven Schoenberg’s still-foreboding syntax: compare Spektral’s conversational bounce in the Allegretto to the relatively stiff and clipped New Vienna String Quartet recording, or the specificity of their melodic pointing in the Adagio next to the Leipziger Streichquartett’s more generalized though impeccable execution.

Their interpretation of Ruth Crawford’s astonishing 1931 Quartet easily matches the Pacifica Quartet’s reference recording, especially in the finale’s nimbly phrased unison lines. By contrast, the Sam Pluta composition is all about percussive attacks and releases. It often evokes DJs employing scratching techniques at super speed. The music demands and receives as vivacious and hard-hitting a performance as one is likely to hear.

Anthony Cheung’s The Real Book of Fake Tunes amounts to a textural tour-de-force, where flutist Claire Chase’s amazing command of extended techniques assiduously integrate within the composer’s boundless gestural arsenal. The fourth movement in particular stands out for Cheung’s blending of pizzicato punctuations and sustained chording, and for the climactic cascading runs with instruments in all registers.

I’m not sold on Spinals, an improvised collaboration with Charmaine Lee; I find that the electronic component and wordless vocal effects abound with clichés that we’ve heard millions of times from thousands of electro-acoustic improvisors. On the other hand, George Lewis masterfully recreates the language of his highly original electronic aesthetic through the string quartet medium, where his fresh and constantly inventive writing always keeps you guessing. What is more, Lewis is not afraid to use silence to make a dramatic impact and to help prepare the ear for the next timbral onslaught. “Spektral Stimulation” is guaranteed for all listeners, and this release certainly does the ensemble proud on the cusp of its 10th anniversary.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Experiments in Living
Reference Recording: None for this collection

JOHANNES BRAHMS: String Quartet in C minor Op. 51 No. 1
ARNOLD SCHOENBERG: String Quartet No. 3 Op. 30
RUTH CRAWFORD: String Quartet (1931)
SAM PLUTA: binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state
ANTHONY CHEUNG: Real Book of Fake Tunes
GEORGE LEWIS: String Quartet No. 1.5 “Experiments in Living”

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