The JACK Quartet (from the first letters of the players' names -- John Pickford Richards on viola, Ari Streisfeld and Christopher Otto on violin, and Kevin McFarland on cello) took NYC by storm in 2008 with their live performances of these Xenakis string quartets, subsequently recorded by Mode. This is the first complete set of the Xenakis quartets to be recorded -- the last one, "Ergma" (1994) had not been written at the time of the 1991 Arditti Quartet recordings for Montaigne. James Harley, leading English-language Xenakis expert, provides the authoritative liner notes.
The earliest quartet, "ST/4" (1956-62 -- 12'56), was not written as a quartet at all. ST stands for "stochastic music," and Xenakis developed algorithms in the late Fifties to generate music from probabilities. ST/4 was extracted from the larger piece ST/10 (there was also an ST/48), and used for a string quartet which was finalized in 1962. The resulting quartet is fascinating -- pointillistic, with lots of space and extended techniques, as well as incredibly dense passages, the level of density resulting from the algorithm. I do not consider this piece one of Xenakis's masterworks, but it is fascinating and compelling.
"Tetras" (1983 -- 17'33) is one of Xenakis's absolute masterpieces, and one of the greatest string quartets of the late 20th century. Dedicated to the Arditti Quartet, it is one of the composer's most effective chamber works, bringing to the quartet the level of complexity, energy, and audacity that marked so many of his works for large forces. As Harley says, "In 'Tetras,' Xenakis's abstract thinking had evolved into a nonlinear, multi-dimensional web of formal and sonic relationships." The title is Greek for "four." According to the Montaigne liner notes by Harry Halbreich, the piece is divided into nine sections, and throughout the four players mainly play as a sound mass rather than polyphonally: 1) glissandi, 2) percussive & pizzicati effects, 3) glissandi, 4) pointillistic sounds, 5) sustained chords to runs to glissandi, 6) harsh double-stops, 7) a violin & viola duo, 8) a metrically complex tutti, and finally 9) strong tremolos subsiding into pianissimo glissandi. This is far more schematic than the piece actually sounds -- it sounds exhilarating, phenomenal, and totally amazing!
It must be said that the last two quartets, from Xenakis's late period which began in the late Eighties, are not as good. The JACK Quartet plays them to the hilt, and interspersed with the earlier works they serve to give a full picture of Xenakis over the various periods of his composing life.
"Tetora" (1990 -- 13'41), another word that means "four," is austere and somber. It opens with a modal melody, moves through great blocks of dissonant chords, all using a steely non-vibrato sonority, building to a great climax. Harley has much to say about the formal logic of the piece, but to this listener it suffers by comparison to "Tetra," lacking the multi-dimensional complexity and the excitement. "Ergma" (1994 -- 8'30) is stripped down even further, and is characterized by harsh dissonance, maximum loudness throughout, and double stops, with a thick, intense sonority. Suffice it to say, the two later works would not be nearly as compelling on their own. As part of this integral program of Xenakis quartets, they can be seen as a valid part of the greater whole, and that is why I give the disc the full five stars.
We are fortunate, and the composer's legacy is fortunate, to have such talented, energetic, dedicated interpreters! Now there is a live recording of the JACK Quartet playing "Tetras" in 2011. The JACK Quartet's recording of James Dillon's String Quartet No. 6 is available in the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2010 set, back-to-back with recordings of the same piece by the Arditti Quartet and the Quatuor Diotima. And they have recorded all three of Helmut Lachenmann's quartets, no doubt in an attempt to make themselves more accessible...
Anyone who enjoys Xenakis and/or the best cutting edge string quartets should also hear Liturgia Fractal, the phenomenal cycle of string quartets by the young Spanish composer Alberto Posadas, who carries on in the tradition of Xenakis!
See my XENAKIS: A LISTENER'S GUIDE list for more reviews and recommendations. I consider Xenakis to be one of the Three Best Composers of the Late 20th Century, along with Elliott Carter and Gyorgy Ligeti.