By 2008, Philip Glass had written five string quartets, between 1966 and 1991, and the British Smith Quartet has collected them all in this Signum release. The album is an intriguing testimony to the variety of Glass' output and the ways his music has evolved. The first quartet, in two slow movements, written in 1966 soon after he had completed his studies with Nadia Boulanger and had had his first exposure to the music of Ravi Shankar, would probably not be recognizable as a work by Glass to listeners only familiar with his "music with repetitive structures." While it does incorporate varied repetitions of the same thematic material, it has none of the austere rigor of the composer's earliest minimalist works, is thoroughly chromatic, and has some of the melancholic introspection of Shostakovich. His second, third, and fourth quartets are typical of the composer's most familiar and popular work, using a tonal language and the repetitive structures for which Glass is best known, and all three have programmatic roots. The second is derived from incidental music for Beckett's Company, the third from the film score Mishima, and the fourth a memorial tribute to his friend Brian Buczak. The fifth is most closely related to the first in its use of dissonance and its freedom from complete reliance on repetitive patterns. Although it does include some typically Glassian repetitions, it seems expressively freer and more flexible than the quartets that preceded it, and there are sections where the string writing is more idiomatic.
The string quartet doesn't seem like an ensemble especially well suited to Glass' typical style. Particularly in the second and third quartets, the string writing is perfunctory and predictable, and lacks much subtlety or variety. The first quartet, with its roots still firmly in the string quartet tradition, is more inventively scored, and the fourth has such a strongly lyrical melodic impulse that the conventionality of its accompanying lines is less bothersome. The fifth is a satisfying synthesis that is obviously Glass' work, but that has some of the variety and complexity of the first quartet. The Smith Quartet's performances are straightforward and energetic. One gets the sense there isn't a lot to work with in the middle quartets in order to create much of an expressive bond with the listener. In the first, fourth, and fifth quartets, though, the group is genuinely communicative. Signum's sound is clear, intimate, and nicely resonant.
All Music Guide
Following on from the critically acclaimed albums, Different Trains and Ghost Stories, Signum is pleased to announce the release of The Smith Quartet's latest album, the complete string quartets by the world-acclaimed composer, Philip Glass.
Over a time span of 25 years, Glass completed 8 quartets (the 3 earliest were withdrawn) drawing on the influences of Bach to Shostakovich, as well as exterior musical sources: dance, theatre and film.
Clear - cut , polished performances by The Smith Quartet give the listener an excellent taster of a quartet at the forefront of contemporary music.
Most contemporary composers would of course sell a kidney, their soul or anything else they'd remotely consider dispensable for a discography the size of Philip Glass'. And yet, alternative interpretations of his pieces - barring a few, albeit noticeable exceptions - have remained a rarity. The reasons for this lack in creative plurality are clearly closer connected to market forces than musical fortes and they are by no means restricted to obscure material. After all, you'd expect a genre like the String Quartet, which Glass has kept coming back to throughout his entire career, to be represented by more than the handful of available renditions the status quo has on offer. The composer himself has indicated that the format implicitely forced him to come up with "the most serious, significant piece" possible and some of the tracks at hand have even made it to movie theaters. Still, apart from various samplers containing one or two of the quartets, the Kronos' interpretation has been the only dedicated recording on the market for over ten years - and it was incomplete, skipping number one.