The Strad Issue: February 2015
Description: An unusual combination of instruments brings gripping results
Musicians: Del Sol Quartet, Stephen Kent (didgeridoo)
Composer: Sculthorpe

It’s an eyebrow-raising combination – string quartet and didgeridoo. But it’s one that this excellent CD (and Blu-ray audio) set makes a strong case for – in Sculthorpe’s highly evocative music; in the Del Sol players’ thoroughly committed, passionate accounts; and in the warm, generous recorded sound that brilliantly captures the sonic nuances and natural earthiness of both bow on string and breath in hollowed wood.

Sculthorpe uses the striking instrumental combination for contrasting ends: purely for its rich sonic potential (in the String Quartet no.12, for example), and even as a symbolic representation of Western culture uprooting indigenous customs and peoples (in the almost programmatic Quartet no.14, based on the horrific story of Western settlers herding an Aboriginal population off a Tasmanian cliff).

The players of the San Francisco-based Del Sol Quartet are entirely attuned to Sculthorpe’s rich, lyrical sound world. They’re unafraid to give full rein to his yearning, diatonic melodies and pulsing accompaniments in their finely articulated readings, which nevertheless sound fresh and spontaneous. But they’re entirely convincing, too, in his evocations of the natural world, from sea-bird glissandos to unsettling, lonely passages portraying the emptiness of the Australian landscape. Stephen Kent supplies sensitive didgeridoo contributions, gradually becoming more assertive and rhythmic in the 14th Quartet’s angry first movement, for example, or ushering in a remarkable polyphonic rendering of ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’ with keening harmonics at the close of the 18th Quartet. Sculthorpe tackles big issues in these works – colonisation, climate change, discrimination – and the quintet of players’ bold, expressive performances more than do them justice.