CD review: Widmann’s String Quartets

First published in the Guardian on 17 July, 2015

Jorg Widmann’s five string quartets make up a kind of meta quartet — a massive web of musical dialectics that celebrate, explode and generally redefine the genre’s lofty, loaded heritage. No other contemporary composer has grappled with quartet form quite so intelligently or so probingly. It’s astoundingly virtuosic stuff, mentally and musically, and jaw-droppingly beautiful at times: just listen to the gossamer-fine and haunting textures of the fourth quartet, or the stark violence that ends the third. The Minguet Quartet does it all justice. Theirs is only the second complete set available on disc, and what’s possibly most impressive is how they manage to chart the big architecture — the way the pieces fit together, or don’t quite — while pouring loving attention into the intricacies of individual scores. Claron McFadden adds rallying, blazing-clear soprano lines to the fifth quartet, while two early works make for fascinating bonus tracks: a restless movement from a schools opera, Absences, and the bolshy, techno-inspired string sextet 180 Beats per Minute.