December 3, 2018
The three works that the Telegraph Quartet wishes to bring Into the Light, the title of its first album, are austere modern quartets by Anton Webern, Leon Kirchner, and Benjamin Britten. The performers write in the album notes that “there is so much to be found emotionally in each of them.” But despite some surprisingly heart-on-sleeve lyric passages in Webern’s Five Movements, Op. 5, that emotional content may seem hidden from the listener. That’s especially the case in a performance with the raw and sinewy sound of the Telegraph Quartet.
Based in the Bay Area, the Quartet recorded in a church in Marin with bright acoustics and close microphone placement. The listener feels seated in the front row, with every snap and crackle of the instruments brilliantly clear, and even the players’ cue-setting breathing audible. The perfectly crafted unity of their playing, as in the vivid triplets that begin Kirchner’s First Quartet, is as striking as are the smashing pizzicato notes and electrically sparking ponticello that enliven the whole disc.
Though it’s intense, this is not music that’s easy to listen to. Webern’s brief utterances are disjointed and cryptic. Kirchner’s quartet, composed in 1949, was credited at the time as “Bartók’s Seventh,” as Kai Christiansen’s notes observe. It has the spiky language and style of Bartók, though perhaps not his incisiveness and clarity.
A different perspective, though, comes from the last work on the disc, Britten’s early Three Divertimenti. The most harmonically conventional part of the program, the Divertimenti have as many odd and challenging sound effects as the others, while adding one more element: This music is witty, even jaunty. Listen to the Britten first, and some of that wit may transfer over to the more serious and dour expressions of Webern and Kirchner. Played that way, this disc becomes as much fun to hear as it is dazzlingly impressive.