The twelve-ish quartets of Wolfgang Rihm are set fair to define the state of the art of the modern quartet. A bold claim? Well, it’s bold music, and musicians seem keen to measure up to its challenges. The Dutch Doelen Quartet is the third ensemble after the Arditti and Minguet to do so on disc. The Minguet’s complete cycle on Col Legno is self-evidently valuable for fans of the German composer. If you want to discover what the fuss is about, and whether Rihm can stand tall in the company of Schoenberg, Janá?cek, Shostakovich and Ligeti, then this pick-and-mix is the best place to start.
Rihm’s journey to maturity is unusually explicit, and it’s worth following from the First Quartet, written when he was 18. The Doelen adds little by playing its nine-minute span a full minute slower than the Minguet, but it does clarify the huge leap forward in discipline and expressive tension achieved by the Fourth from a decade later (1980). The recording helps: so present and tangible that listening to the disc induces the heightened state of awareness you get from a good meditation or massage (there’s an SACD layer that promises even more). Sometimes I even wondered if these Dutch players do Rihm a favour by being so direct. Under their fingers, the furious climax of the second movement of no.4 doesn’t subsume the Janá?cek allusion so much as shout it from the rooftops.
The single-movement Fifth and Eighth quartets venture on to more individual yet less certain ground, self-obsessed by fragmentation and the process of creation. Listen out for the bows on the manuscript paper: clearer but somehow no more meaningful than on the two rival recordings. The Ardittis hang around less, as is their wont, but for sheer sonic allure I give this newcomer the edge.