Gavin Bryars: “The Last Days”. String Quartet No. 1 “Between the National and the Bristol” (1985), Die Letzten Tage (“The Last Days”) for Two Violins (1992), String Quartet No. 2 (1990). Balanescu Quartet. Argo 448 175-2 (1995), barcode 028944817522
(European edition – made in Germany:)
US edition (same label number and barcode):
Argo D 111733 (1995), club edition, no barcode
Recorded 12-14 March 1995 at the Maltings Concert Hall, Snape, England
Best response to those who claim that nothing beautiful was written since Britten and Shostakovich
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 5 August 2016
I’m not usually a great fan of repetitive minimalism and its neo-simplicity. It’s not the repetition I mind – as everybody, I’m a great fan of Ravel’s Bolero. I may object more to the (at least apparent) simplicity, which I would tend to find less nourishing than “complexity”, but it’s really – more than simply the fact that the music is always safely, even snugly tonal – the simplistic, saccharine and sentimental harmonies which often come with the repetitions of Glass, Adams, Nyman, Bryars and others that make me cringe: I find them grossly, cheaply and vulgarly manipulative, harping all too unabashedly on the sentimental string, and I don’t like to feel like a puppet hanging at the end of big wire cables.
But there must be something – either with me, or with the composers – with the genre of the string quartet, because I’ve greatly enjoyed those of Glass and Nyman (for the latter, see my review of Argo 433 093-2, Balanescu plays Quartets 1-3), and likewise with those of Gavin Bryars.
It is not entirely clear why Bryars assigned to the first string quartet (written in 1985 for the Arditti Quartet) the subtitle “Between the National and the Bristol”. In fact, that phrase refers to the other piece paired with the Arditti’s recording of the quartet for ECM in 1986 (see link below), “Three Viennese Dancers” for French Horn and percussion, which originated as an abandoned “aria for Mata Hari” project for Robert Wilson’s The CIVIL WarS. While working on his aria, Bryars came across the fact that three famous female dancers had spent the same evening in Vienna, unbeknownst of each other, with Mata Hari staying at the Bristol Hotel, Maud Allan at the National Hotel, and Isadora Duncan in an undetermined one “between the National and the Bristol”. Bryars doesn’t say that the composition of the String Quartet had anything to do with his work with Wilson, so one is left with the conjecture that he gave the piece that subtitle only to link it with the Three Viennese Dancers on the ECM disc. In fact, he had wanted to make his quartet a tribute to four great string players-composers, Ysaye, Vieuxtemps, Hindemith and Schoenberg, but due to lack of time could write in only a cursory reference to Ysaye. Bryars refers to a practical joke pulled by Ysaye on his accompanist Busoni “in the Queen’s Hotel Birmingham”, but he doesn’t say which (in fact, research shows that it involved Ysaye disguised as the grotesque ghost of Paganini and playing in the dark on a tiny violin), and it is not known if Ysaye descended in a Viennese hotel between the National and the Bristol, and when.
Anyway, the music is beautiful: cast, as its too successors, in one continuous movement but with clearly delineated episodes, mostly slow-moving, slowly pulsating, meditative, very lyrical without being saccharine, mysterious, haunting, other-worldly, with the strings often playing in the highest registers and harmonics. Sometimes the quartets of Janacek and their exacerbated lyricism come to mind.
Alexander Balanescu was the second fiddler of the Arditti Quartet when Bryars composed his Quartet for them and was influential in getting the ensemble to commission the work. He then joined Bryars’ own performing ensemble (as well as Nyman’s) and soon founded his own string quartet, for which Bryars wrote his second String Quartet (no subtitle this time), in 1990.
Other than its first fiddler, the Balanescu Quartet changed lineups over time and its once second fiddler, Jonathan Carney, went on to create the Lyric Quartet… for which Bryars wrote his third String Quartet, in 1998. So far that’s it, no fourth string quartet yet… maybe because the Lyric Quartet’s second fiddler, Edmund Coxon, hasn’t established his own ensemble (Bryars wrote in fact another string quartet, or rather a series of ten 5-minute string quartets, in 1992, in the original version of his piece with pre-recorded speaker “A Man in a Room, Gambling”).
Both Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 follow very much the style, processes and moods of the first: more slow meditative motion, exacerbated lyricism and other-worldly sounds, more arpeggios, moments of breathtaking beauty.
String Quartet No. 1 got the honor of three recordings, by their premiere performers the Arditti Quartet in 1986 on ECM New Series ECM 1323, this one by the Balanescu Quartet for Argo in 1995 and by the Lyric Quartet in 2001 for Black Box, BBM1079. Arditti didn’t tackle more Bryars, at least not on CD, so that leaves two recordings for the second String Quartet, and so far only one, by the Lyric Quartet, for the third.
All these versions are valid, all three have their (minor) plusses and (minor) minuses (and those are very subjective) but all three are fine and do full justice to the music. The Arditti Quartet, though benefiting from the legitimacy of being the premiere performers of SQ No. 1 and playing on the acoustic/electric RAAD instruments which seem to produce beautiful, other-worldly harmonics, have the disadvantage of playing only the first quartet, which gives a definite nod in favor of the two others. The Balanescu’s recording pickup affords less instrumental immediacy and impact to each instrument, they are more embedded into the whole sonic picture, but as a result they are more comfortable, less aggressively in your ears. The recording of the Lyric Quartet has left a strong ambience noise around the instruments, very perceptible at the beginning of each track and in the moments of silence. Their other-worldly harmonics at the end of SQ No. 1 are a bit shrill. In SQ 2 the Lyric has slightly more presence and immediacy but, consequently, less refinement than Balanescu. They are more dynamic in the “scherzo” passage from 6:32 to 9:58, but Balanescu’s sul ponticello harmonics thereafter (10:48 in their recording) are more snarling. Balanescu lend a haunting, other-worldly quality to the melody that develops after 15:43 (14:38 for Lyric in the same passage). The last and intensely lyrical cello melody soars more with Balanescu’s Sian Bell than it does with Lyric’s David Daniels.
But really, these are details perceptible only on close comparison, and both ensembles serve the beauty of the music. So choice between both depends really whether you want the three quartets (Lyric) or the first two quartets and the duet for two violins “The Last Days” (Balanescu): again much in the same mood as the quartets, very lyrical and songful, but more in the direction of simplicity and sentimentalism. Still, there are aspects in Balanescu’s interpretations, especially in the second quartet, that I wouldn’t want to be without. In fact, you could do like me: buy both CDs. You might, or you should. Bryars writes music that is intensely lyrical without, I find, and unlike so many contemporary composers attempting to write “intensely lyrical” music, lapsing into the sentimental. One may be, as is my case, a staunch advocate and fan of the “complexity school” that dominated Western contemporary music in the 20th century, and still consider that Bryars is the best response to all those who claim that “modern” music stopped producing anything valid after Britten and Shostakovich. Not only do they prove that they are they incapable of grasping the beauty that lies in “complex” music (and, sure, it does take a wee bit of effort, concentration, and training, and some people prefer to judge without knowing than to know without judging) but also that they’ve never heard the string quartets of Bryars.