Giorgio Koukl | 14 OCT 2023
Under the title “Shades of Romani Folklore,” Navona Records releases this new album by the Ulysses Quartet, where Beethoven, Frucht, and Janáček quartets are paired together.
It is quite frequent that artists release CD installments with a loose idea of uniting music from very different time periods, sometimes obtaining some surprisingly interesting results. It can really cast some new light upon already well-known scores when the listener can juxtapose the scores of, let’s say, Beethoven against a living US composer like Paul Frucht.
What is a little disturbing is that discovering even tiny traces of Romani folklore in all this music seems nearly impossible. The Romani (or Gypsy if you prefer the original British expression) originally came from the Indian subcontinent and, with their very fresh folk music, have indeed influenced many composers, especially in Eastern and Southern Europe.
But we have here to try to avoid mixing together the great wave of the 18th century, where exotic sources of melodies became so popular. One of these sources was everything “Turkish,” let us cite here only one example: the famous “alla Turca” piano piece of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, among many others.
Another source was music originating from Hungarian folklore, as is the case with young Beethoven and his String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4, which opens this CD.
Based on musical material from his earliest period in Bonn, it has been written with a certain sense of urgency and a clear simplicity of texture. There is no slow movement; instead, a C major “Andante,” which in a certain way anticipates the second movement of his first symphony. It is the last movement, called “Allegro-Prestissimo,” which can bear some Hungarian folk music elements, especially with the idea of a great accellerando leading towards the end.
The Ulysses Quartet (violinists Christina Bouey and Rhiannon Banerdt, violist Colin Brookes, and cellist Grace Ho) plays this score with a certain classical approach, never exaggerating any agogic structure, sparingly using the dynamic means, but in the general impression conveying a very convincing final result. The musicians are not much helped by the quite dry sonic picture; maybe some more effort from the sound engineers would have been necessary here.
It is the best piece of the whole disc, so a great opener.
Rhapsody for string quartet by the American composer Paul Frucht follows. Being put in the middle of Beethoven and one of the iconic pieces of the string quartet repertoire like Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” may not be the easiest position. Anyway, this eleven minutes long single-movement piece is in no way inferior in its texture. Mr. Frucht is known for his fine orchestral music, but maybe he is far more at ease in chamber music. Indeed, the score is full of marvelous lyrical moments, some refined 20th-century bowing techniques, and a generally well-planned temporal process. Here, the quartet can really explode and show its full array of capacities. Mr. Brookes, the violist, deserves a special mention. He is on display in the next and final score, that of Leoš Janáček.
It is a well-accepted theory that the viola part of the “Intimate Letters” quartet represents Janáček’s old age love, Kamila Stössl, to whom he wrote until his death.
Recently, all of the nearly 700 love letters of the Moravian composer were published and clearly reveal the importance of his nearly 35-years-younger muse as inspiration for different operas like The Cunning Little Vixen and others.
This music is explosive, vital, and ever-changing. The typical ostinato figures, so characteristic of Janáček, are played by the Ulysses Quartet with the right degree of rage and sense of urgency. As said before, the excellent viola sound emerges here once more.
This album is a compilation of different string music scores, well worth listening, despite the fact that the fil rouge of Gypsy music inspiration is quasi-nonexistent. ■
- Ulysses Quartet: ulyssesquartet.com