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Steve Reich Triple Quartet and Different Trains

The Smith Quartet

Signum SIGCD064
[TT: 46.59]

The Smith Quartet have taken upon themselves the UK mantle of the pioneering Kronos Quartet and present here works for extended quartet with which the Kronos were first associated.

Triple Quartet required prerecorded tapes which they made so that the instrumentation as heard is a twelve piece string ensemble. It is all fluently and efficiently done, with impeccable recording and engineering. But is more less on CD? I suspect the experience would be far more vivid and effective seen with live quartet flanked by two absent ensembles heard through loudspeakers either side? presumable a good alternative (worth doing in a college chamber music department?) would be to have it played by three quartets, possibly programmed with Mendelssohn's Octet and Milhaud's Octet (his Quartets Nos 14 & 15, designed to be performed simultaneously).

Duet for two violins with a chugging accompaniment by 4 violas and 4 celli (which must limit possible performance) is a simple and attractive little piece written as a tribute toMenuhin's 'international understanding'.

The core of Different Trains has is the use of repetitive fragments of recollections of exciting train journeys in USA, and those of Holocaust survivors settled in America who suffered contemporaneusly memories of their horrific journeys to concentration camps in cattle trucks. But in Reich's tape manipulation treatment they are totally dehumanised. The contribution of the quartet is overwhelmed by the supposedly evocative phrases of those recorded memories, speech samples turned into 'speech melody', then imitated by Reich's writing for the strings. Train noises are added to the mix and three string quartets are added to the tape, all very clever but I found it unconvincing and unmoving and - dare I say - exploitative on first hearing and do so again. Undeniably popular with Kronos and Smith audiences, none of this is music that I would want to hear again. But mine is a minority reaction, so you should hear it for yourself.


© Peter Grahame Woolf