A concept album with plenty of assurance but lacking a clear personality

Dudok Quartet Amsterdam: What Remains

The Strad Issue: August 2023

Description: A concept album with plenty of assurance but lacking a clear personality

Musicians: Dudok Quartet Amsterdam

Works: Music by Gesualdo, Machaut, Messiaen, Pérotin, Reich and Roukens

Catalogue number: Rubicon RCD1110

Born in 1982, Joey Roukens is a Dutch composer on the ‘contemporary classical’ scene with a strong list of serious commissions to his name. What Remains is the title of his 25-minute Fourth Quartet from 2019, written for the Dudok and evoking (to me) the notion of a defined or noumenal space as described in different ways by Kant, Rückert or Beckett. A listener in search of their bearings would find points of orientation in Steve Reich’s oscillating ostinatos and the hyper-expressive expanded tonality of Thomas Adès; a strong sense of Roukens’s own voice remains elusive.

Different Trains deserves its status as a modern classic but does not invite re-recording or recreative interpretations. For one thing, the tape part-straitjackets the performers in terms of tempo; for another, it covers over the usual variations of texture and colour that we would expect from different performers. I think I have heard all the recordings since the original Kronos Quartet album and I cannot say that any of them improve on it. The piece is what it is.

Which leaves us with a trio of early-Renaissance motets in transcription, done with glassy assurance, and a Messiaen curio: the sixth movement of the Fête des belles eaux which he wrote in 1937 for a sextet of ondes martenot and then adapted for the first ‘Louange’ in the Quatuor pour la fin du temps. The Dudok curates this kind of concept album in style, but on this occasion the whole feels less than the sum of its parts.