The Watchful Ear, November 19, 2015

I should mention that should anyone ever ask which five albums I would choose to be stranded with upon a desert island, Jürg Frey’s first volume of string quartets, recorded by Quatuor Bozzini and released on the Wandelweiser label back in 2004 would make the cut. Containing Frey’s first two quartets, written in 1988 and 2000, the music on that disc remains one of a very small handful of Wandelweiser releases I return to repeatedly. The monochrome, minimal beauty of that music has a lasting appeal for me, connecting as it does my personal love for the string quartet form, the almost guiltily hidden romanticism of Frey’s composition and the austere outer curtain that much Wandelweiser music of that period presented us with. This new release then has been, to say the least, much anticipated around here.

There were ten years between the completion of Frey’s second string quartet and his embarkment on the four year period it took him to write his third. In the intervening years the Swiss composer’s prolific output highlights a gradual but evident shift away from the sparse, silence enveloped expanses and muted greys of his earlier work towards a subtly more complex, perhaps more familiarly musical palette. If the analogy of a time-lapse captured pupae opening gradually to reveal its hidden splendour is to be of any use here however it should be noted that Frey’s most recent work is no garishly coloured butterfly, rather the soft colours and quiet fragility of the understated moth perhaps apply as he has stretched his wings to reveal a degree of beautiful subtlety currently unparalleled. The third string quartet, played here again by the Bozzini’s with only one personnel change since that earlier release is perhaps the piece of music that epitomises Frey’s later works perfectly. It is a simply stunning half an hour of music.

Whilst the third string quartet takes in many ways the traditional form of two violins, cello and viola, Frey chooses not to follow the classical approach of splitting the work into four distinct movements, instead following the example of Nono, Lachenmann and others and retaining the piece in one section, lasting thirty-two minutes and taking up the first half of this CD. The third quartet is slow music, as was the second, and much of Frey’s catalogue of work. If the architecture of Jürg Frey’s composition here is built with an acute attention to harmonic layering and the warmth of softly glowing colours shimmering beneath earthy tones then it is through the glacial pace of the music that we as listeners are afforded the chance to take in such details. So as the opening chords, richly formed from carefully chosen dry slithers of gentle tone immaculately in time with one another slide past us they seem to do so with an intense solemnity and a stillness that belies the fact that this could be Frey’s most musical and silence-free work yet. The opening third of the piece is just hauntingly beautiful. The horizontal strokes of the opening gradually give way to a more blurred mass of low register washes which themselves dissolve into a more structured series of bars offering melody sculpted from layered harmonic pitch but still with a sense that it will all just slip out of earshot at any moment. Around the halfway point of the piece a pattern of gradually rising chords begins that form a distinct section within the quartet- lifting the music up from its morose, shadowy, yet highly beautiful opening movements and pouring a soft light into the work that fuels the entwined pitches and allows for the shadow of the breathy near-silences that follow and the more densely coloured swathes of the closing passages.

It is actually really difficult to pin down Jürg Frey’s third string quartet into any simple categories. It serves as the most fully realised recorded example yet of how his music has slowly evolved out of the austere landscape of the early Wandelweiser pigeonhole into something that is literally blossoming, albeit at slow speed, into complex, colourful and yet always incredibly subtle and refined music. Frey’s work has always exuded a strong sense of humility that matches his personality. In his liner notes he explains;

“The music gets its vitality and its radiance, not from gesture and figuration, but in quiet presence — everything is there: colours, sensations, shadows, durations. The music is silent architecture.”

These few words describe the work better than mine ever could. There is indeed everything here, and the quiet and assuming can be peeled back to find an incredible depth of detail and a melodic, even classically romantic warmth presented through music that is quite intoxicatingly beautiful as it hovers close to its own disappearance.

The string quartet is accompanied by a further work, the thirty-five minute Unhörbare Zeit, an older work written between 2004 and 2006 performed by the Bozzini Quartet alongside two percussionists, Lee Ferguson and Christian Smith. Unhörbare Zeit has been reworked for different instrumentation a couple of times, the piece seemingly beginning life as a quartet for flute, clarinet, trombone and cello, probably to be performed by members of the Wandelweiser collective, and then morphing into a double quartet for strings and four trombones before finally the version heard here. Its another lovely work, but this time one that nicely bridges the gap between the silence strewn austerity of earlier works and the fluid beauty of the new string quartet. The piece consists of long soft, deep pitches of varying length that mostly never overlap, though each chord in itself is the result of carefully tuned layered composition. The playing here is quite remarkable. Each of the pulses of sound start and finish so smoothly its as if they were digitally adjusted, and the smoothness of each held tone is such that they sound handcrafted in post-production, but to be clear, they aren’t. Here and there the string tones are met by shorter percussive sounds, but everything is very restrained, controlled, with the silences providing the perfect negative space for the moments of immaculate sound to be placed amongst them. Its a study in controlled pacing, faultlessly perfect musicianship and a wonderfully arranged sense of compositional refinement. Unhörbare Zeit provides a more structured form of beauty, the straight lines of the neat lawns placed alongside the glorious rosebeds of the third string quartet’s lyricism. The quartet is the star of the show here, but the choice of piece to pair with it is a discerning one. Overall this is a wonderful release of music from a composer currently producing music that somehow manages to tick every box at once for me. Rarely is music so gorgeously listenable also so explorative, rarely does music with one eye of music’s traditions sound so thoroughly modern. This is out there on its own.

Rarely is music so gorgeously listenable also so explorative, rarely does music with one eye of music’s traditions sound so thoroughly modern. This is out there on its own.