Gyōrgy Kurtí¡g: Jí¡tekí³k (selections)
Gí¡bor Csalog, Andrí¡s Kemenes, piano; Mí¡rta and Gyōrgy Kurtí¡g, muted upright piano
BMC CD 123
Jí¡tekí³k (“Games”), a still-growing collection of short piano pieces by the world’s leading miniaturist, Gyōrgy Kurtí¡g (1926-), lives in the shadow of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. Again, we see a Hungarian composer assembling piano miniatures with at least a glancingly pedagogical intent. The similarities are only superficial, though; Bartok’s pieces, wonderful as they are, are stern, schoolmasterish exercises compared to the collection of whimsical delights Kurtí¡g has been assembling continually since 1975.
Jí¡tekí³k builds piano music up from its elements: not pitches and rhythms, however simple, but wood, arms, elbows, and keys. Insofar as these are pedagogical pieces (and that is an unanswerable question), they are aimed not at developing technique or dexterity but wonder, creativity and surprise; not at producing pianists, but musicians.
There are 58 tracks on this disc, with a total length of just over an hour; everyone will have his or her own favorites. Standouts for me include “Versetto: Temptavit Deus Abraham (apocryphal organum)”, from Book VI, a wonderfully slanted gloss on pre-medieval polyphony in which the parts approach each other asymptotically but never quite line up the way they should, and the various pieces entitled “Objet trouvé,” based around soft, gently swirling glissandi. But there is, quite literally, something for everybody; the selection represented here is catholic, and ranges from a good-humored fourteen-second bagatelle called “Jumping Fifths” to a collection of long (i.e., two-minute), tolling laments in memory of various Hungarian colleagues and acquaintances.
Gí¡bor Csalog, joined occasionally by Andrí¡s Kemenes for four-hands pieces, plays this selection from the ever-growing collection of “Games” with an air of transparent simplicity and an absolute mastery of touch. Keyboard-sweeping glissandi are caressed with preternatural softness, and never have I heard a pianist’s elbows deployed with such control of dynamics and phrasing. As an added bonus, the composer and his wife perform a handful of selections together at the keyboard of a muted upright piano; they end the disc with a heartbreakingly innocent and calm performance of Kurtí¡g’s arrangement of Bach’s Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit from the Actus Tragicus.
Kurtí¡g, who plays some of these pieces whenever he makes one of his occasional forays onto the concert stage, has recorded his own selection (alongside a larger number of Bach transcriptions) on an ECM disc, which I have not heard. I can confidently recommend this new recording nevertheless. It is charming in the extreme, and filled with unexpected wonders.
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Luciano Berio: Sequenzas I-XIV
Naxos 8.557661-3 (3 CDs)
Naxos and Mode have both released, nearly concurrently, recordings of the complete Sequenzas of Luciano Berio (1925-2003), an epoch-making series of sixteen works for solo instrument (including a couple arrangements) that spanned the entirety of Berio’s 45-year mature artistic career. Mode’s collection, which I have not heard, supplements the three discs of Sequenzas with a fourth containing the rest of Berio’s otherwise modest output for solo instruments; both of these new collections include the final piece in the collection, Sequenza XIV for cello, which had yet to be written when the other available “complete” set was released on Deutsche Grammophon in 1999.
That original collection featured soloists of the Ensemble InterContemporain, few of them household names (even relatively speaking) but all absolute masters of their instruments and of the lyrically-inflected postwar European idiom that the Sequenzas collectively inhabit. This new Naxos collection, recorded in Ontario between 1998 and 2004, features a number of Canadian musicians; most of them are unknown to me, but among the long list of contributors are such stars as pianist Boris Berman and trombonist Alain Trudel, along with soprano Tony Arnold, who will be a star herself in the near future.
In general””and in a review of a three-CD set comprising sixteen different soloists, generalities will have to do””these performances strike a gentler, more lyrical, smoother tone than their InterContemporain predecessors. Where the European players were incisive and rhythmically precise, Naxos’ performers are more concerned with the long line, sometimes at the expense of accuracy of rhythm, dynamics and accent. In short, the Naxos performances feel “lived in”; it seems as though these pieces are being seen as a previous generation’s property, worn and familiar, shock and rigor having been replaced by relaxed comprehension.
That sounds like a rather lukewarm characterization, but in most cases it is not meant to be. After all, Berio embarked upon this series with the intention of redefining virtuosity for a new aesthetic age, and through his own and others’ agency, that goal has been accomplished. Technical hurdles are no longer an issue in this repertoire, and while the interpretive philosophy reflected in the Ensemble Intercontemporain’s performances is certainly valid, it has no claim on exclusive authority.
In the best performances here, there is a sense that the musicians have brushed past the modernist gestural surface in search of the Italianate lyricism just beneath. And there are performances on this collection that stand up easily to the earlier recordings. Most particularly, Ken Munday’s rendition of Sequenza XII, for bassoon, was a revelation; the beautiful control across registers that Munday brings to this recalcitrant instrument is a wonder to hear. Also, Tony Arnold’s breathtaking Sequenza III for solo voice is the best performance of this most popular Sequenza that I have ever heard, decisively answering any critiques of this babbling and histrionic piece as a collection of vapid theatrical effects. In her hands it is no such thing. Instead, it is a touching and emotionally fraught monodrama, with intersecting layers of structural and textual significance that I have never heard brought forth and controlled so brilliantly.
So, in the end, it depends on what you want out of your reference set of Sequenzas. If you want to experience this heterogeneous collection of pieces as bracing modernist experiments””which they were at the time, at least in the first half of the series””the Deutsche Grammophon set is perhaps still the top recommendation. If, however, you prefer a more retrospective, perhaps more nuanced view, with lyrical and emotive properties brought to the fore, this Naxos collection will do just as well. Plus, it’s only half the price.
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Earle Brown: Times Five; Octet I; December 1952; Novara; Music for Violin, Cello and Piano; Folio (November 1952, December 1952, Four Systems); Music for Cello and Piano; Nine Rare Bits
David Tudor, Michael Daugherty, Earle Brown, others
New World Records 80650-2
I fear for Earle Brown‘s historical legacy. He is no danger of falling out of the music history textbooks (a fate that might well befall his colleague Christian Wolff, most unfortunately), but he owes that staying power almost entirely to a single sheet of paper: the mysterious, widely spaced rectangles of December 1952. Quite aside from its musical merits, December 1952 has served as an iconic image of the Zeitgeist that gave rise to the New York School of composers. It is a stark, simple and shocking example of the opening of new possibilities, and even if Brown was neither the very first nor the most persistent explorer of these notational hinterlands his name will always be attached to them.
More thorough histories of American experimental music will note Brown’s innovations in proportional (“time-space”) notation, open form, and other sorts of structured notational ambiguities. But even if textbooks of the future devote a paragraph to Brown rather than merely the obligatory sentence and illustration of December 1952, they will neglect to evoke the wide-ranging aural imagination at work in the strikingly diverse group of works on this disc.
New World Records has, in either an act of great charity or an extremely optimistic business decision, taken upon itself the task of re-releasing and distributing the catalog of the defunct CRI label, home to a fair amount of historically vital material amid a larger number of forgettable recordings. This album, originally released as CRI CD 851 in 2000, is definitely in the first category. It brings together works from Brown’s early maturity, from 1952 to 1965, in performances either led by Brown himself or entrusted to stalwarts of the repertoire like David Tudor and harpsichordist Antoinette Vischer.
December 1952 is here, of course, in two different versions. The “classic” is David Tudor’s performance on prepared piano, which Brown declared the best of Tudor’s multiple realizations. The separated notes and small clusters are what we expect to hear, and the cloudily noisy timbres yielded by the preparations create an effective sense of three-dimensional sonic space. This is the version to play in the classroom””an expertly assembled and performed example of what we all know December 1952 is supposed to sound like.
Michael Daugherty’s realizations for piano and electronics of December 1952 and two of its companions in the collection entitled Folio (November 1952 and Four Systems) are quite different. Instead of Tudor’s points and noisy grumbles, they involve little linear melodic figures, literal repetitions (particularly in Four Systems), trills, and rhythmic motives, couched within a much wider sonic vocabulary than that deployed by Tudor. It’s a surprising interpretation. Although not obviously wrong, I certainly wonder how Daugherty justifies the sense of linear continuity that takes over at the end of his performance of December 1952, and what he intends with the surface motivic connections he creates with his melodic and rhythmic material. In any case, the results are certainly aurally compelling on their own terms, and the conceptual dissonance itself is a worthwhile experience.
The rest of this recording includes lesser-known pieces, most of which were unfamiliar to me, and some of which were revelations of a breadth and aural imagination of which I do not automatically associate with Brown. Music for Violin, Cello and Piano, written just before the Folio pieces, is utterly different””the apposite term is “Webernesque”, given not only he work’s concision in both overall length and motivic vocabulary and its continually wide registral span but the sense of horizontal line that manages to emerge nonetheless. Octet I, written while Brown was working with Cage on the tape-collage project that also yielded the latter’s Williams Mix, is as frenetic and unstoppable as its more famous cousin. Music for Cello and Piano, from 1954-55, is framed in the proportional notation that Brown developed, and the sensitivity of communal gesture and spontaneous sharing of resonance and energy is expertly captured in this performance by Dorothea von Albrecht and Christine Olbrich. Nine Rare Bits (1965) for one or two harpsichords, commissioned by Antoinette Vischer and performed by her and George Gruntz, is a riotous collection of modules put in order by the performers with a show of energy and force as uncharacteristic of the instrument’s traditional image as Xenakis’s later pieces would be.
The standout pieces here, the ones that show a side of Brown that is hidden from those who have lacked sufficient opportunity to explore much beyond the textbook characterization of his career and his strengths, are the longest: Times Five, from 1963, and Novara, from 1962. Both of these works for chamber ensemble (Times Five also involves four-channel tape) are shockingly limpid, calm, and utterly beautiful in these performances conducted by Brown; the unisons, held string chords and ear-capturing melodic figures outdo even those in the better-known Available Forms pieces. The sound is more Bruno Maderna than Webern or early Feldman, and these two pieces make this archival recording far more valuable than David Tudor’s historically important recording of December 1952, and also make it far more likely to get taken down again and again from the shelf.
Some of these recordings show their age in tape hiss and a mild loss of frequency response, and some have stray live-in-concert noises, but it doesn’t matter. Without Times Five and Novara, this would be a disc worth owning as a reference, a reminder of a participant in the joyous experimentation of 1950s New York often overshadowed by his more often performed colleagues. With these two gorgeous and obscure works, it becomes something to be listened to often, and savored. This record needs to be heard, and I hope that it will serve as a life preserver for Earle Brown’s posthumous reputation. It reminds us that Brown was, to reverse Arnold Schoenberg’s remark about his erstwhile student Cage, “not just an inventor of genius, but a composer.”
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Morton Feldman: Three Pieces for String Quartet; Two Pieces for String Quartet; For String Quartet; David Toub: mf; David Kotlowy: Of Shade to Light; John Prokop: New England, Late Summer; David Beardsley: as beautiful as a crescent of a new moon on a cloudless spring evening
Rangzen Quartet, Christina Fong
This 95-minute audio DVD represents an enterprising project from OgreOgress Productions, whose every project is enterprising. The influence of Morton Feldman, after all, seems to be proclaimed everywhere these days, across a far wider range of time, space and aesthetic than one might have thought possible upon Feldman’s death almost twenty years ago. Accordingly, For Feldman presents first recordings of some early string quartet music by the influencer himself, juxtaposed with four relatively extended works by younger, lesser-known composers who claim that influence.
The headliners here, from a retail standpoint in any case, are the Feldman works. The Three Pieces for String Quartet are, as it turns out, For String Quartet followed by the Two Pieces for String Quartet; in other words, there are three string quartet pieces on this recording, each heard twice. These slight works, written between 1954 and 1956, hail from a time in Feldman’s career when variously indeterminate works (the graph pieces, the “free duration” pieces, and so on) were interspersed with the occasional fully notated score, giving evidence of an aesthetic turmoil from which Feldman’s mature style would only slowly begin to emerge.
It’s not clear how these pieces are notated, and David Toub’s brief liner notes are mute on the subject. One can only assume, given the preponderance of unison attacks, is that these scores are either fully written out or presented as a series of (mostly) verticalities to be performed in free tempo, like the Durations series or the later Christian Wolff in Cambridge. I thought the presence of each piece twice on the disc would help triangulate a hypothesis, but no such luck; these appear, oddly enough, to be the same performances simply included twice under different titles.
The music is typical of a certain subspecies of early-50s Feldman, very much in the vein of 1951’s Structures, his only previous work for string quartet. The familiar Feldman is here in the quiet dynamics, isolated gestures, and slow rate of change, but the particularly forward-looking passages in Structures“”the oases of slightly irregular repetitions that twenty years later would form nearly the whole of Feldman’s aesthetic universe””are not in evidence. Instead, relics of Webernian melody (particularly a pizzicato cello lick at the end of For String Quartet) testify to a soon-to-be-discarded approach to horizontal continuity.
For all these reasons and more, these pieces are of significant historical interest to the Feldman aficionado, although they are not in themselves his most compelling or successful work. A dryish recording that deadens even low-register pizzicati and muffles the resonance of harmonics does damage to the sonic surface, but the secure intonation and ensemble consciousness of the Rangzen Quartet provides a satisfactory and valuable documentation. Now there is one fewer dark unexplored corner of Feldman’s large and varied output.
The four other pieces on this disc share with each other and with Feldman a reliance on very slow rates of motion, and little else. David Toub’s mf follows a rocking diatonic ostinato for thirteen minutes, floating long, mostly stepwise melodies above and below it as it wanders through different instruments, ranges, harmonies, and finally timbres. The very narrow dynamic range (the only written dynamic indication is that alluded to in the title) results in an appealingly claustrophobic texture, independently creating knottiness and density despite open harmonies and widely spread registers. The punishing string writing””the resin on the bows is very much in evidence, since that ostinato requires two bow changes a second””sometimes taxes the quartet noticeably, so those rocking eighth-notes are not always as steady as one might wish, and the momentum flags at times as a result. The sudden switch to col legno battuto at the ten-minute mark is a pleasant surprise, though, providing enough contrastive power to propel the piece to a conclusive quasi-cadential apotheosis.
David Kotlowy presents a mostly hushed series of slowly stuttering ensemble gestures in Of Shade to Light. Movement through series of locally repeated, harmonically chromatic cells make this the most Feldmanesque of the four “homage” pieces, although the occasional appearance of a long-held low cello note that suddenly casts the surrounding harmony in the role of resonances is a distinctly “post-Feldman” idea. Particularly effective is the sudden yet subtle emergence of ponticello timbre after the halfway point, a striking means of ratcheting up tension and energy with a minimum of material. While Toub’s mf tested the quartet’s endurance and concentration, Of Shade to Light challenges the steadiness of their arms and their security of attack, with every flaw highlighted by a very close recording; but the consistency, clarity and force of Kotlowy’s writing overcomes these obstacles.
John Prokop’s gorgeous New England, Late Summer is broadly similar in timbre and texture to the Kotlowy; it was wise to separate them with one of Feldman’s short quartet pieces on this recording. Compared to Of Shade to Light, the cloudy repetitions here are more leisurely, more melodic than gestural in character, more uniform and more hypnotic. The whole thing breathes with a dense gentleness, and when everything is transported upward by a semitone seven minutes in the effect is a beam of sunshine. New England, Late Summer elicits the Rangzen Quartet’s best performance on this recording by some measure, and rightfully so, for it is the most affecting music here, Feldman included.
David Beardsley’s as beautiful as a crescent of a new moon on a cloudless spring evening is a half-hour essay in just intonation played by Christina Fong overdubbed upon herself. A low cello A serves as a reference point while a series of held tones over it produce microtonal beatings, audible overtones and unsettlingly pure intervals. I confess that this music falls between two stools for me: it depends too much on melody and dramatic form to achieve the paradoxically human rigor of Alvin Lucier’s wide-eyed sonic experiments, but nor is there enough other substance to propel the music out of the “wow, listen to this weird interval” territory. As an almost pugnacious essay in so-called “alternative tunings,” it may well appeal to listeners for whom that is enough to sustain interest.
The Feldman on this disc represents a valuable contribution to a fundamentally important historical legacy, but the highlight musically is the Prokop. In any case, this disc is worth a listen for those curious to hear what has become Feldman’s legacy””how his example of alternative ways of conceiving form, time, density and content have seeped their way into the aesthetic consciousness of a succeeding generation of composers who have little else in common.
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Tom Johnson: Rational Melodies, Bedtime Stories
Roger Heaton, clarinet
The title begs the question, of course. When can a melody meaningfully be described as “rational”? Are the passages of (in retrospect) textbook species counterpoint in Palestrina rational? The mad twitchings of Boulez’s Structures Ia? The self-similar patterns of John Luther Adams’ air-raid sirens? The additive processes of Glass’ Music in Fifths?
A good deal of Tom Johnson‘s compositional history has been devoted to posing that very question, and British clarinetist Roger Heaton’s performance of this selection from the ever-growing set of Rational Melodies does so in particularly beguiling form. These are pretty, songful little tunes, most under two minutes in length, generally consisting of patterns that repeat according to simple and immediately comprehensible schemes of addition, subtraction, or step-by-step transformation. Heaton, recorded in a beautifully resonant acoustic, plays these little tunes innocently, like lullabies or improvised little childrens’ tunes.
As always with Johnson, though, the overt rationality of these pieces””their transparent dependency on logical systems””is more complex than it seems. As was the case with another disc of Johnson’s music I reviewed recently, the extremely strict formal constraints still leave room for a lot of conscious, intuitive, “creative” decision-making, and here those decisions are made in a way that complicates things significantly. Almost all of these melodies are simply conjunct or triadic, and most of them have tonal implications. “Tonal implications,” of course, is shorthand for a whole universe of implications, tendencies, expectations, weightings of possibilities emanating from every pitch. Even the smallest musical event presents a welter of little arrows pointing to a universe of subsequent options, each with their own reasons and consequences, none of which have anything to do with the ostensible “rational” method of construction.
In the tenth selection here, for example (the Rational Melodies may be played as any subset of their complete number, in any order), a simple arpeggiated figure in A flat major is transformed through a simple nested pattern of downward semitonal shifts, but jostling for the listener’s attention alongside that self-similar pattern is a whole kaleidoscope of tonal relations, a complex harmonic structure rivaling anything in Wagner or Strauss, that bursts forth unbidden purely as the result of Johnson’s irrational choice of pitches.
These are unanswerable questions. They are asked here, though, with a dainty sort of gracefulness. Rarely are such profound critiques of the nature of human creativity asked in a way that is so easy on the ear.
The rest of the disc is filled by Bedtime Stories, for clarinet and a narrating clarinetist. This piece has had a colorful history on radio, including productions involving recordings of the composer snoring and a young girl counting (sheep, presumably). Here we have a set of twelve of Johnson’s absurdist narratives, the sort that occur again and again in widely varying contexts in his work, from the Four-Note Opera to Failing: a Very Difficult Piece for String Bass, with simple little clarinet figures interspersed that have a broadly abstract illustrative function. The various ways of seating guests at a dinner party, for example, are illustrated by different permutations of an eight-note whole-tone set; one story consists entirely of a man trying to put together a “Chinese puzzle”; the words “but that didn’t work, so he tried it another way” are repeated over and over, followed after each repetition by another arrangement of a small set of widely spaced pitches. It ends when “he finally gave up.”
This is wonderful stuff. Not only should Bedtime Stories be played by young clarinet students the world over””it would be an absolute smash in student recitals, and is easily playable by those with limited technical abilities; it, along with the Rational Melodies, highlight the whimsical nature of Johnson’s intentionally naí¯ve approach to music. His methods of composition are those of a wide-eyed child, innocent and delighting in every “accidental” discovery, and nowhere is that clearer than in these utterly charming pieces.
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John Luther Adams: Strange and Sacred Noise
Percussion Group Cincinnati
Mode 153 (CD or DVD)
In the small corner of that small corner of the world known as the new music community, John Luther Adams seems to be what I guess I’d call a monopolarizing figure. Most of the names that get tossed around in informal aesthetic discussions of contemporary music are very much of the “love them or hate them” variety; any cursory glimpse at a Sequenza21 or NewMusicBox comment thread will yield the usual suspects””Babbitt, Glass, Ferneyhough, Zorn, and so forth ad nauseam. One could probably devise a fairly accurate aesthetic barcode for composers based on their binary responses to a list like that: love, hate, love, love.
Not so with John Luther Adams. It seems, rather, that one either sees him as a relatively unheralded but extremely important composer, a musical and musico-philosophical pioneer and inspiration, or as a creator of briskly beautiful, rigorous music that is very well done indeed but not fundamentally earth-shaking. One either loves him, that is, or likes him.
I find myself, based admittedly on the limited and exceptional example of the present hour-long cycle of pieces for four percussionists, in the latter camp. These are compelling pieces, moving in their austerity. All but one of the nine pieces is scored for a quartet of identical or very similar instruments””that exception is scored for ten very similar instruments””and each explores a very limited ambitus of material and gesture, usually enveloped in a slow and simple structure of swells and fades. In fact, in his reliance on pure symmetry and self-similar patterns, Adams seems driven to attempt to do away with form altogether, regarding it as a mere nuisance that must be dispatched with given music’s inconvenient reliance on time and memory. The goal is rather a focus on sound, on the grain of a snare drum, on the intricacies of the absolutely unforgettable sound of four air-raid sirens wailing in fractal patterns.
The conceptual austerity, the bare confrontation with maximally stripped-down forms and sonic blocks, is distantly reminiscent of certain early works of Cage, and more distantly still of Satie, but the effect is entirely different. The most direct precedent is probably James Tenney’s epoch-making Having Never Written a Note for Percussion (indeed, solitary and time-breaking waves, the second constituent piece of Strange and Sacred Noise, is scored for four tam-tams and dedicated to Tenney). It’s true what they say, that Adams’ work evokes the frozen expanses of his home state of Alaska, that it seems””at least to the listener armed with the knowledge of the composer’s geographical situation””very much bound to a sense of place and an attendant attitude towards scale and geologic change that can only be palely reflected on a city boy like me. Had Adams lived and worked in, say, Rochester, I’m sure the explanations, and thus possibly the effect, would be quite different. But say the word “Alaska” in the context of this music, and it sticks, indelibly, until it is impossible to hear it any other way.
The performance, by the Percussion Group Cincinnati (whose approach to ensemble performance is detailed in a fascinating short essay in the liner notes by Steven Schick) is exemplary, and the sound quality of the recording is well nigh miraculous. I’m not yet convinced of Adams’ genius, of the claim to enduring influence as a singular creative figure that many seem ready to make on his behalf, but I am willing to be persuaded.
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Francisco Guerrero: Zayin (I-VII)
No, not that Francisco Guerrero; instead of the Renaissance polyphonist, we have here the “Spanish Xenakis.” Before his premature death in 1997 at the age of forty-six, Guerrero honed a relentless style of clouds of harsh attacks and spiraling glissandi, controlled by quasi-mathematical fractal patterns and combinatoric logic. The result can sound quite like the music of his Greek predecessor, without the brutal square rhythms or distinctive “sieve”-based harmony. This is music of great physical energy, grit and wiry strength, based on movements of gesture and register, of vertical and horizontal masses twirling and colliding. Composed between 1983 and Guerrero’s death fourteen years later, it is also a running chronicle of the composer’s mature (and maturing) style.
It should come as no surprise that most of this cycle of eight pieces for string trio or quartet (or, in the case of the lengthy Zayin VI, solo violin) was written for the Arditti Quartet, who are masters of “physical energy, grit and wiry strength.” The venerable ensemble (recording in 1997 and 1998, and thus sharing only first violinist Irvine Arditti with the quartet that bears his name in 2006) tears through these pieces with abandon, maximizing contrasts and sparing nothing in their quest for ruthless vigor. Resin is audible, glissandi are torn into until they turn into moans and screeches, and the lowest strings of the four instruments growl with a feverish intensity.
It is not all violence and blood; there are a profusion of lyrical moments in this sixty-six minute cycle, and Zayin V in particular, with its mutes and emphasis on the high registers, comes as close to gentleness as Guerrero ever gets. All in all, though, this is a bracing experience, the sort of writing that is right in the sweet spot of the Ardittis’ preferences and capabilities.
I’m not sure why Jerry sent me this disc for review; it was released more than six years ago and is not widely available (although, at the moment, it is on offer from a couple private sellers on Amazon). I was glad for the chance to hear it, though, and if hearing the Arditti Quartet in repertoire that was written for them in every possible sense of the phrase is your thing, you will be too.
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