Jamaican-born British composer Eleanor Alberga has received more attention in the past few years since her piece, Arise, Athena!, opened the final concert of the BBC Proms in 2015. This recording of her string quartets highlights some earlier compositions, in which her modernist sensibilities are at the fore. Alberga utilizes many compositional tools in her vast toolbox to bring drama to three very different works, all composed within an eight-year period from 1993-2001. Working in a combination of modernist and postmodern idioms, Alberga has not forgotten harmonic tension and release and plenty of repetition; this is not to say that her music is conservative, but that it is refreshingly expressive and has an engaging sense of narrative and rhythmic drive, honed from her training as a composer for modern dance.
The highlight on this recording is Alberga’s first string quartet, commissioned by the Maggini String Quartet and completed in 1993. In a classic three-movement structure, Alberga has packed the piece with drama and a sense of play and motion from the start. Inspired by a lecture on physics, Alberga describes in the liner notes “that all matter—including our physical bodies—is made of the same stuff: star dust. So the first movement might be called a ‘fugue without a subject,’ as particles of this stardust swirl around each other, go their separate ways, collide, or merge.” The string quartet opens with three independent, atonal, and angular melodies in the upper strings, but with a swinging sensibility. The introduction of the cello with a repetitive bass rhythm melds these four voices into a rocking groove, a technique that helps ground the piece. Alberga builds tension through techniques like trills, ponticello, and uncomfortable dissonant parallel motion—tension that is released into big, crashing chords built on fourths and fifths. The sense of play and motion is echoed in Alberga’s title for the first movement (in three languages), depicting playing style, tempo and mood: Détaché et Martellato e Zehr Lebhaft und Swing it Man.
The second movement, Espressivo with Wonder and Yearning, is pure floating paired with meandering harmonies and expressive dissonances, creating a feeling that Alberga describes as “stargazing from outer space.” Her angular melodies are once again on display, but here they are paired with clear textures played non vibrato or with fluttering trills. This sense of clarity is brought out by moments of triadic harmony that vanish into intensely dissonant duets in the violins. The third movement, Frantically Driven Yet Playful, opens with the raw energy of biting chords with open strings. Grooves once again ground the movement, but there is also more independence between the instruments, with a legato first violin, rollicking inner voices, and fast chromatic runs in the cello. The groove often dissipates into a playful pizzicato section; this movement best presents Alberga’s ability to create a variety of textures. Alberga is no stranger to dissonance throughout the string quartet, but it is used in conjunction with a variety of techniques, textures, and repetition at the service of drama that makes a truly engaging experience.
The String Quartet No. 2 (1994) is in one movement, but resembles a four-movement quartet without pauses. All of the materials are developed from the first few measures of the piece, including several motives that are imitated and developed immediately. This piece contains quicker contrasts of mood than the first quartet and sounds almost manic, but is united in its motivic foundation. The highlight is the final section, with a big return of the opening motive, eventually building up to a raucous groove full of cross-rhythms and big, dissonant, but triumphant, final chords. The String Quartet No. 3 (2001) is in four movements, and Alberga includes twelve-tone series mixed with elements of tonality and free dissonance. She describes the piece as evolving from a central note, D, that returns to help structure the piece. Motives from different movements reappear throughout the quartet, but are only fully developed in the fourth movement.
The playing on the album is impeccable, led with expressive interpretation by violinist Thomas Bowes, who also happens to be the composer’s husband. This is the Ensemble Arcadiana’s first recording, but the ensemble was formed to play at the Arcadia festival founded by Alberga and Bowes. The players have an uncanny ability to create lyricism out of Alberga’s angular melodies, and their sense of ensemble is outstanding. Perhaps the most impressive playing comes in the adagio of the third quartet, with beautiful, sonorous playing by cellist Jonathan Swensen, stratospheric playing by Bowes, and a crystalline texture from the entire ensemble that is strikingly clear. But neither are they afraid to be gruff and raw when the occasion calls for it, as in the finale of that same quartet. The recording quality of the album is also top-notch, with producing credits to Stephen Frost and multiple Grammy Award-winning engineer Arne Akselberg.
This Navona Record’s release provides a fine introduction to Alberga’s music, one that I am personally very grateful for. The recording is recommended to all lovers of contemporary classical music and I hope that more of the composer’s music is recorded in the future.
Reviewed by Bret McCandless, Rowan University and Indiana University