Classical Music Review: New Releases

Friedrich Cerha × String Quartets 1 - 3. String Quartet No. 1 (15'17), String Quartet No. 2 (18'44), String Quartet No. 3 (18'31), Eight Movements after Hölderlin Fragments for String Sextet* (24'57). Arditti Quartet (* with Thomas Kakuska, viola & Valentin Erben, violoncello). cpo 999 646-2.

Born in Vienna in 1926, Friedrich Cerha is perhaps best known for his completion of the third act of Alban Berg's Lulu, which premiered in 1979. His early work was influenced by Stravinski and, later, Webern. Around 1960 he broke with strict serialism and began to compose pieces "in a tonal idiom completely free of traditional formulations." An example of his music from this period is his Spiegel II for 55 Strings. This piece, premiered by Ernest Bour at the 1964 Donaueschingen Music festival, has affinities with the music of Penderecki from the same period. Since that time, Cerha has concentrated on music for the stage. He has composed several operas based on his "Welt als vernetztes System" (world-theater idea).

Recently, Cerha has become interested in various forms of folk music, including music from areas outside of Europe. His String Quartet No. 1, composed in 1989, is subtitled "Maqam." The maqam is the main modal unit of Arabic music, a collection of intervals (both tonal and microtonal) forming the basis for a composition. In this quartet, Cerha uses what the calls "maqam-like" patterns to create a sound-world reminiscent of Moroccan music. The work consists of eleven sections, each with unique characteristics. Some quiet and meditative, others loud, busy and intense. The quartet succeeds in melding European and Arabic elements into a coherent structure. It is the most striking and powerful piece on the disc.

Cerha's second quartet, written in 1990, is a more organic whole. Cerha cites the influence of music from Papua New Guinea, but the extra-European influence is not as blatant as in the first quartet. The quartet consists of a single arch-like movement arising out of silence, marked by increasing polyphony. As the work progresses, the profusion of melodic ideas gives way to sections of rhythmic simplicity, which gradually increase in speed before beginning an inevitable retreat into static chords. The String Quartet No. 3 was completed a year later. It is broken up into six distinct movements and is more heterogeneous than the earlier works. Cerha's exploration of extra-European music continues in this piece, but the effect seems even more subsumed than in the second quartet.

The sextet is based on eight texts by Hölderlin. The composer began by "setting" the texts as lieder and then "increasingly submitted these melodies to musical stylization because I didn't want to have the texts sung." Thus the movements reflect something of the mood and "speech melodies" of the poetic fragments. The texts are printed in the CD's booklet and provide a programmatic touchstone to the music of the sextet.

The music on this disc is quite sublime and beautiful. There is a suggestion here that Cerha has found an avenue out the "avant-garde" cul-de-sac that has trapped so many of his contemporaries. The playing of the Arditti Quartet is, of course, nonpareil.

Tony Gualtieri

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