Ragazze Quartet: Spiegel and Four Four Three May 15 by Stephen Braude in Call for Reviewers, Music Reviews

DSD Reviewer Stephen Braude takes on Ragazze Quartet’s “Spiegel – Mirror” and “Four Four Three“.

SPIEGEL – MIRROR by Ragazze Quartet
Mendelssohn: String Quartet Op. 13
Beethoven: String Quartet Op. 132

“This was my first opportunity to hear the young members of the Ragazze Quartet in standard repertoire, and I’m very impressed. The two works on this release have been recorded many times, and by the best ensembles. So the Ragazze is up against very serious competition, and—as an ardent (fanatical?) collector—I was curious to see how they fared. In the process, I was reminded keenly how it’s possible for different performers to adhere faithfully to a musical score and still produce results that differ considerably from one another.

The Mendelssohn and Beethoven quartets are both in A Minor. Mendelssohn was only 18 when he wrote his Op. 13, two years after Beethoven’s Op. 132, and it seems clearly to have been influenced by the seriousness of the earlier work. That’s especially apparent in the beginning of the last movement, where the first violin has a passionate improvisatory cadenza played over menacing tremolos in the other strings. If you’re among those who still thinks that Mendelssohn is no more than a relatively “light” composer, the entire corpus of his wonderful string quartets should do much to change your mind—especially the early Op. 13 and the later Op. 80 in F Minor, written following the death of Felix’s sister, Fanny.

I compared the Ragazze’s Mendelssohn to seven of the other performances I had on hand: by the Pacifica, Talich, Mandelring, Arod, Kocian, Artemis, and Emerson (as William Blake said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”). I don’t want to overwhelm you with minutiae, and so I’ll just say that I found the Ragazze to be more nuanced, warm, expressive, fleet, and with sharper dynamic contrasts than all but the recent recording by the Arod quartet, which (although I like it) is so ferocious and intense, and at times so fast, that I can easily imagine many finding the performance to be over the top. I was also particularly impressed by the beauty of the Ragazze’s sound and their exquisite ensemble balance. I now consider this to be my easily-preferred performance of the Mendelssohn. I hope the Ragazze record the remainder of Mendelssohn’s quartets (it would probably help me prune my collection).

Competition in the Beethoven is even more intense, because more of the most distinguished ensembles have tackled that work. I was able to compare this new recording with performances, all of which I’d be reluctant to abandon, by the Alban Berg, Alexander, Emerson, Talich, Hagen, Takács, and Tokyo quartets, and here I found it more difficult to pick a clear winner. Moreover, Beethoven’s Op. 132 is a more complex work than Mendelssohn’s Op. 13, and it offers more opportunities for distinctive interpretive decisions. In my view, the greatest performances of Op. 132 are those that carefully negotiate the work’s many tempo and meter changes and scrupulous dynamic markings. I admit, I expected the young members of the Ragazze not to have lived with this music for as long as members of the more mature ensembles, and accordingly I expected them to be less “inside” the score and less prepared to make the most of the work’s details. But I was wrong. Although I might quibble with a few points—for example, I question whether their flowing tempo at the start of the 3rd movement (the “Holy Song of Thanksgiving”) is really molto adagio–the Ragazze’s performance is first-rate and very moving. And it’s the best-recorded of the bunch—another superb job by Jared Sacks (the Tokyo’s SACD takes second place). I can also say that the Ragazze’s ensemble balance seems, overall, to be more egalitarian than that of the other contenders, which typically are weighted more heavily in favor of the first violin. I can’t predict how other listeners will feel about that, but I enjoyed the greater prominence given to the other strings.

So I emerged from this marathon of comparisons even more impressed than I was initially by the Ragazze’s performance on their Terry Riley release: “Four Four Three.” I look forward to sampling the Ragazze’s other recordings, and I strongly encourage you to check out this very promising young ensemble.

FOUR FOUR THREE by Ragazze Quartet
Music of Terry Riley, with Kapok & Slagwerk Den Haag

“Terry Riley, along with Steve Reich and Philip Glass comprise the grand old triumvirate of what’s widely called “minimalism,”but which Riley more accurately prefers to label “repetitive music.” The (or at least one) prototype for a repetitive piece begins with a menu of small musical phrases or “cells” which can be assembled in various ways, played a number of times (often at the players’ discretion), and which hopefully combine in gratifying ways with the cell-sequence played simultaneously by other musicians. Such compositions are usually rather static harmonically, because the harmonies all arise out of the initial and limited menu of cells. So musical development in a repetitive piece—such as it is—usually consists of changes in the prevailing harmonic and timbral texture. It’s not surprising, then, to discover that Riley’s breakout composition, “In C,” is relentlessly (but not entirely) based on the C Major scale. Similarly, the other piece in this release is a jazzy exploration of A Dorian. Moreover, because in Riley’s case at least the players can choose how many times they repeat a cell, performance-length can vary, sometimes greatly, from one occasion to another. That’s why performances of the 53 musical phrases of “In C” have ranged from 15 to 90 minutes.

I first heard Riley’s “In C” in the late 1960s and was delighted and intrigued. Because of the work’s clear renunciation of conventional ideas of musical argument and development, I recall thinking of Riley as the anti-Beethoven. This signature piece has been recorded and performed often, with quite different groups of instruments—and, of course, with different arrangements and repetitions of the basic cells. The two compositions on this release are anchored by the talented and adventurous women of the Ragazze Quartet. They’re joined on “In C” by the percussion group Slagwerk Den Haag, and on 1980’s “Sunrise of the planetary dream collector” by the unorthodox jazz trio Kapok (consisting of French horn, electric guitar, and percussion). I’d never heard any of these musicians before, although I’d read very favorable reviews of the Ragazze Quartet’s recordings of standard classical repertoire. On the release at hand, all the musicians acquit themselves impressively, and I especially applaud the Ragazze for their exploratory spirit in venturing beyond the standard repertoire, and also for their ability to establish a swinging jazz-rock groove along with the members of Kapok.

The strings and percussion instrumentation for “In C” gives that piece an overall texture that’s not duplicated, as far as I’m aware, in any other recording of the work, and it ranges here from delicate tinkling and plucking to more massive sonorities. Moreover, the composition develops in a very leisurely fashion; impatient listeners have been known to tire quickly. (Fortunately, I have the patience of an oyster.) And although it’s possible, and potentially rewarding, to listen to this piece by attending to gradual shifts in texture, you might feel that the piece is simply more hypnotic than hypnotically fascinating. In that case, perhaps the best strategy would be to grab your vape pen or edibles, sit back and relax, and just submit to it.

I’d say that the success and reputation of “In C” may have owed more originally to its novelty than to its command of repetitive musical syntax. Steve Reich, in my opinion, did this sort of thing better, as did Riley himself—as the second piece on this release illustrates. That composition, “Sunrise of the planetary dream collector,” was originally written for string quartet alone. However, the Ragazze Quartet recruited Kapok to collaborate on an arrangement that undoubtedly expands the color of the piece, and which exploits the pop-rock possibilities afforded by the addition of the jazz trio. It’s a really terrific, smoking performance, much more eventful and interesting than “In C.” It helps, too, that the listener is drenched in A Dorian for only 17 minutes, as opposed to the 40+ minutes of C we get on this release.

Actually, to be fair to Riley, I should note that “In C” does offer some modal variation. Long stretches are in G Mixolydian (which, granted, is still the C Major scale). But the piece occasionally departs from that scale. For example, there’s a section that lingers on E Aeolian (the G Major scale starting on the sixth). However, I’m reluctant to predict whether those changes will be enough to relieve the boredom for some listeners.

Jared Sacks’s recording is—as one now routinely expects—stellar, and the performances are definitive. If you enjoy repetitive music, this will be a mandatory purchase.”

Stephen Braude

Stephen Braude is DSD Reviewer since late 2017, he regularly writes for NativeDSD’s blog about DSD Albums of his choice.

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