A collection of contrasting music that’s more than just a game of chance

Spektral Quartet: Experiments in Living

Spektral Quartet: Experiments in Living

The Strad Issue: December 2020

Description: A collection of contrasting music that’s more than just a game of chance

Musicians: Spektral Quartet

Works: Music by Brahms, Schoenberg, Crawford, Pluta, Cheung, Lee and Lewis

Catalogue number: NEW FOCUS RECORDINGS FCR270

For a release whose individual pieces seem intentionally not to belong together (there’s even an online, tarot-style app to select tracks in apparently random order), this wide-ranging, sometimes breathtakingly audacious offering from the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet makes a lot of sense. What holds it together, in fact, are the Spektral players’ incisive, compelling performances, which quite miraculously feel as if the players are discovering their repertoire for the first time, with all the joy and wonder that entails, yet also conveying works they’ve known for a lifetime.

Accordingly they offer a nimble, transparent account of the Brahms C minor Quartet, expertly shaped and with a good balance of elegance and gruffness, but they really come into their own in a Schoenberg Third Quartet full of nervy energy and crisp articulation, and just as deeply lyrical as the preceding Brahms. Their enormously characterful account of Ruth Crawford (Seeger)’s 1931 Quartet makes you wonder why the piece isn’t more widely known: it’s a jagged, uncompromising work, with the musicians often jostling for attention in their strongly contrasted musical personalities, and the Spektral players give it a brilliant, dashing performance, superbly controlled but full of volatile passion.

They complement the three ‘established’ works with a quartet of recent pieces commissioned for them and premiered by them – and their enthusiasm for these new works is evident. While Charmaine Lee’s semi-improvised Spinals veers towards self-indulgence, Anthony Cheung’s exquisite The Real Book of Fake Tunes combines Claire Chase’s flute with filigree quartet writing to bewitching effect, while George Lewis’s acerbic String Quartet 1.5, which provides the disc’s overall title, gets the serious-minded insights it deserves. Best, however, is Sam Pluta’s extraordinary binary/momentary logics: flow state/joy state, a helter-skelter succession of 25 micro-movements of hyperactive sonic invention, which the Spektral players mine for all their exuberant musicality.

Recorded sound is surprisingly tightly focused, but this is a remarkable, deeply rewarding offering from a quartet showing its abundant skills across a joyfully bewildering range of repertoire.