The Strad Issue: January 2011
Musicians: Kreutzer Quartet, Roderick Chadwick (piano)
Composer: G. Coates

Gloria Coates (b.1938) writes music that is as close to surrealism as any I know. An American composer who has lived in Munich since 1969, she uses simple, often straightforwardly diatonic elements, yet twists them into a musical language that is quite bizarre and otherworldly. In the Ninth String Quartet (2007), for example, the first violin and viola are tuned a quarter-tone down from the second violin and cello throughout. And in the Lyric Suite for piano trio ‘Split the Lark – and you’ll find the Music’ (1996), based around Emily Dickinson poems, there’s further microtonal ambiguity and seemingly aimless wanderings in the melodic lines. Glissandos abound, often slow, controlled and ear-bending.

But it’s fascinating music, at once approachable and unsettling. The Kreutzer Quartet gives a thoroughly committed performance of the Quartet, treating Coates’s unusual demands with due seriousness, although the players perhaps lack a little of the wit or sparkle that would have brought the music more alive. First violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved rises magnificently to the challenges of the Sonata for violin solo (2000), especially in the appropriately subdued Berceuse, where his hushed, introverted tone matches the music beautifully. He’s joined by the quartet’s cellist Neil Heyde in the Lyric Suite, and, together with pianist Roderick Chadwick, they deliver a rich, colourful performance, the string players resisting the temptation to play in tune with the piano or (at times) with each other.

It’s a shame that the recorded sound – the boomy acoustic for the String Quartet and solo Sonata, and the piano at times engulfing the strings in the Lyric Suite – sometimes lets the splendid performances down.

David Kettle