The Strad Issue: January 2012
Description: Commanding performances of American quartets from different traditions
Musicians: Diotima Quartet
Composer: Reich, Barber, Crumb

The French-based Diotima Quartet is renowned for its interpretations of hardcore contemporary music – think Ferneyhough, Boulez, Lachenmann. So the three very different American works on this disc – one Minimalist, one late Romantic, one highly theatrical – might have come as something of a challenge. Thankfully, the players rise to them magnificently, with crisp, precise performances full of spontaneity and drama.

Right from the start of Reich’s Different Trains, there’s a clarity and transparency to the group’s playing that’s lacking from the Kronos Quartet’s 1989 premiere recording, with clipped notes, beautifully shaped phrasing and a brittle beauty to their pulsing chords. The Diotima’s chilly, vibrato-less tone brings a ghostly glow to the music, only adding to its sense of poignancy, and the players have a sound understanding of Reich’s architecture, building to some extraordinarily powerful climaxes.

Their cool, considered reading of Barber’s String Quartet might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s still an undeniable passion to their playing. The famous Adagio never sounded more like early vocal polyphony; the players are careful to delineate each individual voice, and although it’s not a performance high on Romantic abandon, the astonishing purity of their sound only adds to the movement’s intensity.

They’re in their element in George Crumb’s Black Angels, though, dispatching its 13 grotesque sonic images with clear relish, in a highly theatrical and genuinely unsettling performance. Recorded sound is exemplary throughout.

David Kettle