by Karl Nehring
Hildegard von Bingen: Columba aspexit (arr. Alex Fortes); Eleanor Alberga: String Quartet No. 1; Komitas Vardapet: Armenian Folk Songs (arr. Sergei Aslamazian) - Yergink Ampel A (It’s Cloudy); Haprpan (Festive Song); Shoushigi (For Shoushing); Echmiadzni Bar (Dance from Echmiadznin); Kaqavik (The Partridge); Sibelius: String Quartet in D minor Op. 56, “Voces Intimae.” Aizuri Quartet (Emma Frucht and Miho Saegusa violins; Ayane Kozasa, viola; Karen Ouzounian, cello). Azica ACD-71359
Having never heard of the Aizuri Quartet before receiving this disc for review, I was not quite sure what to expect. The program seemed to be a bit unusual, too, what with music from Hildegard, Komitas, and Sibelius – familiar names, but not ones I would have expected to find together on the same program – plus a quartet from a composer whose name was unfamiliar to me, Eleanor Alberga. Opening the booklet that came with the CD, I found these words of explanation from Aizuri’s cellist, Karen Ouzounian: “Earthdrawn Skies explores deep connections between humankind and the natural world through the distinct lenses of four composers forging personal relationships with the soil and the stars. These works by Hildegard von Bingen, Eleanor Alberga, Komitas Vardepet and Jean Sibelius are rooted in a sense of tradition and connection to the land, even as the composers seek something beyond their reach: an understanding of God, the physics of the cosmos, homeland, happiness. The music on this album draws from the earth as it reaches upward and outward. these composers share an impulse to understand the sky, the heavens, the larger things in life. This is music we have kept returning to as a quartet, as it speaks to us in deeply personal ways. We cherish playing this music together, and we hope it resonates as much with you as it does with us.”
Columba aspexit presented us with a unique and challenging question, one we were excited to explore: how can we truly become one voice?" It’s an unusual sonority for a string quartet, but one that draws the listener in. What an effective way to begin an album!
Next on the docket is the three-movement String Quartet No. 1 by Eleanor Alberga (b.1949), a Jamaican-born composer who lives and works in the UK. From the very first measures of the first movement it is clearly a work that in tone and texture stands in contrast from the Bingen that preceded it. The pace is frantic, the mood more abstract. The overall pattern is the familiar fast-slow-fast, the engaging second movement (the highlight of the piece, designated Expressivo, with wonder and yearning) being followed by the more frenetic finale, with its sharper rhythms and pizzicato passages (it is designated Frantically driven yet playful). It sounds like one of those pieces that would be especially rewarding to see performed live, observing the interactions of the four players.
Then comes another shift in pace and mood with the five brief (none over three minutes) folk songs by the Armenian Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935), usually known simply as “Komitas,” an Armenian musicologist, composer, music teacher, choir director, priest (thus the “Vardapet,”), whose actual given name was Soghomon Gevorki Soghomonyan. He is considered the father of Armenian classical music. These folk songs are lively and charming, enjoyable to hear as well as to play. "The music of Komitas gave us a sense of our roots, our homes and lands from which we were displaced, the contours and nuances of our language, the warmth and sorrow and ebullience of our families, a link between those who perished and those who are living," writes Ouzounian of the album's link to her Armenian heritage.
“Voces Intimae” quartet by Sibelius. As popular as his symphonies have become, his string quartet has never really caught on to the same degree. Some years back I read a fascinating book that I highly recommend titled Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony by Arnold Steinhardt, who was the first violinist of the famed Guarneri String Quartet. One of the tales from his account of his career with the group revolves around his repeated attempts to persuade the other members to add the Sibelius to the Guarneri’s repertoire. Surprisingly, it took many years before he was finally successful, as the other quartet members would not come to agreement that the Sibelius quartet was a worthy piece. My goodness! Violist Ayane Kokasa points out that “there are five movements instead of the traditional three or four. Each movement feels like a character piece, with the heart and soul of the work placed in three intimate and hushed chords tucked in the third movement. No matter how many times I listen to this piece, it feels new, like we are on the precipice of discovering something great.” It’s not one of those dramatic quartets that makes a memorable first impression; it’s a quartet that deserves and then rewards repeat listening.
Azica Records deserves kudos for the liner notes that provide some insight into the music and musicians, the simple but compelling art that graces both cover and booklet, and the attractive sound quality. With Earthdrawn Skies, they have produced a CD that deserves and then rewards repeated listening.