ConTempo Quartet

Good extroverted musical style, shame about the 'buzz'

'It’s fair to say that this is a programme which doesn’t come along too often'. That’s the way Keith Acheson, manager of the Crescent Arts Centre, introduces the concert at the Crescent Arts Centre on September 3. His description is accurate and it makes the small but significant audience all the more incongruous. I’d be questioning my publicity machine if I were in his shoes.

The concert is being given by the Rumanian ConTempo Quartet, which has been resident ensemble in Galway since 2003. Its style is emotional, unbounded and vibrant – a thousand miles distant from the stuffy image so unfortunately and often so mistakenly associated with chamber musicians.

Opening with George Crumb’s Black Angels quartet proves that there is to be no pussyfooting in this concert – no soft toned easing into the more 'difficult' music the audience is here to sample. This piece is a surrealist voyage of the soul in three sections, aurally illustrating in vivid detail its fall from grace, spiritual annihilation and redemption.

In musical terms, the piece is full of effects. The most obvious is the amplification of the instruments, used to expand the huge dynamic range of the writing. But the effects don’t end there – the players vocalise and employ every trick in the stringed instrument’s advanced technique book: bow tamtams, water glasses, cymbals, they even invert the string instruments and play on the fingerboard side.

In the seventies, this all became part and parcel of the avant garde musical brigade. Nowadays, Black Angels can no longer be dismissed as a piece of gimmickry. It is no less arresting – shocking - than it ever was but we hear it all from a different perspective – a perspective of aural experience with the language which allows Crumb’s indomitable imagination to shine through.

The ConTempo hold back nothing and the performance is exhilarating, despite an annoying background hum that suggests a problem with the amplification system.

The immediately ensuing Langsamer Satz by Webern feels to me to be almost too much of a chronological, stylistic jolt. It is richly and darkly lyrical, luxuriating in the heady harmonies of the last throes of German/Austrian romanticism. It makes me understand why so many composers turned away from this type of music as decadent and cadaverous and accepted dodecaphonism as a solution – the wrong one in my view. The ConTempo’s playing highlights the overblown romanticism by a very wide vibrato, which comes close to being distasteful and cloyingly sweet.

After a welcome interval to clear the head, the ConTempo play a work by Galway-based composer Jane O’Leary. Written coincidentally in the year of the ConTempo’s establishment – 1995 – Mystic Play of Shadows is loosely descriptive of bird choruses, interspersed by more straightforward melodic passages. It is difficult to gain a sense forward movement here and I feel the episodic nature of the writing lets the music meander unpurposefully, without evoking any definable 'mood'.

There is, however, no loss of dynamic and intensity in the quartet’s playing as is evidenced in its approach to Debussy’s only string quartet, which finishes the programme. I experience no hint of French restraint, no French hauteur, no French polished edges here – this is an earthy performance which, in relation to 'accepted' interpretations, may raise an eyebrow or two

But I find a real immediacy in the bright, exaggerated extroversion of the ConTempo Quartet’s music making which is as unusual and as refreshing as it is pleasurable.

Find out more about the Cresecent Arts Centre and the ConTempo Quartet and future events at their websites.