String Quartet No. 3, Op. 41
Caroline Shaw
Three Essays
String Quartet No. 9. Op.117

Calidore Quartet

Signum Classics SIGCD 650
Full Price

The Review

For weeks I was sure I did not want to review this issue, put off by the tiresome and misleading album title, Babel. It refers to the concept behind the programme, namely works that imitate speech through the language of the string quartet.

As a unifier, it is tenuous and actually irrelevant to the experience of repeated listening: good for a one-off concert, unnecessary in a domestic collection.

However, and it is a big however, I have found myself going back to the disc again and again, and finding great pleasure in it. My attitude has somersaulted. The Schumann playing is superby balanced, with each detail delineated but not forced, the rhythms energetic without being rushed or over-emphatic. The music is presented as a conversation, not a shouting match, so in that sense the concept does work and in a way it is good to hear this wonderful piece out of the usual context on CD of his other quartets; given a chance to be heard against 20th and 21st century examples. Schuman’s inventiveness shines through, especially in the third movement Adagio Molto (the Calidore’s lower string timbres really stand out here).

It might seem tough on Caroline Shaw to follow on from the Schumann with barely a pause but in fact her Three Essays, written for the 2018 BBC Proms, hold their own with no difficulty. Her style is entirely in the spirit of the medium – again, she sees no need to fight the essential lyicism and its ability to temper that with drama. The political background to the essays is admirable but, like the Shostakovich that follows them, important as supporting information, not musical appreciation. I do not know her other music but if this is a typical example, the exploration will be worthwhile.

Like so much of Shostakovich’s chamber music, the 9th Quartet is fraught and a combination of introverted resignation and ferocious protest. The Calidore comes close to capturing its spirit but I am not quite convinced they have it utterly conquered yet. Technically it is splendid but there is something more still to come – hard to know what until it arrives: possibly a more luminous first violin tone, slightly less staccato semi-quavers? In the end I am not sure it matters greatly. The disc overall emerges as hugely rewarding.