You might be forgiven for regarding “Dublin Guitar Quartet” as a non-sequiturial string. Of the many permutations available to chamber ensembles, you rarely encounter more than one classical guitar at a time; and the countries associated with that instrument are more likely Spain or Italy. The four Irish gentlemen brought to Longy by the Celebrity Series on Wednesday night made a case for a grouping that relied heavily on the subtle timbral qualities of the instrument rather than on its expressive range. Fully appreciating it required careful attention to small differences: one’s aural palate needed to be attuned to the equivalent of green tea rather than, for example, bourbon. Unfortunately almost all of the repertoire turned out to be rather small beer.
Consider, for example, the two transcriptions of string quartets by Philip Glass. Both the String Quartet No. 2 and String Quartet No. 3 were written to accompany other works—as incidental music to Samuel Beckett’s Company and to Paul Schrader’s lurid Mishima. Shorn of their extra-musical connections, their success depends on the audience responding predictably to the broad, romantic emotional gestures and to the chugging rhythmic patterns. It was played impeccably by the foursome (Brian Bolger, Pat Brunnock, Michael O’Toole and Tomas O’Durcain). But four guitars, no matter how well played, stand in a pale and quiet middle distance from the standard string quartet. In addition, only three of the third quartet’s six movements were played: a blessing to my seatmate who hates Glass, but a troubling gesture otherwise. How much integrity does the piece or performance have if one is willing to present only half of it?
The majority of the program comprised a mix of small pieces. Of the offerings, three were written for the Dubliners by guitarist composers; all were primarily atmospheric. Leo Brouwer’s Cuban Landscape With Rumba consisted of two lively if understated movements that shared the same minimalist aesthetic as Glass. The more engaging first movement vividly evoked colorful of steel drums, an effect achieved by placing a secondary bridge under the strings, raising them and taking them slightly out tune. Nikita Koshkin’s explicitly programmatic Changing the Guard summoned marching soldiers, clock chimes, even the fluttering away of a flock of pigeons. The effect was clever, if slight. William Kenengiser’s Gongan spoke in a fine ventriloquism of Balinese Gamelan, the instruments tuned to non-Western scales that filled the room with sensually clashing overtones.
There were two pieces arranged from Estonian choral music, and if you think that sounds like unpromising source material for a guitar quartet, you’d be half right. Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) was to Estonia what Bartòk was to Hungary. The two short songs arranged by the Quartet, Maga, maga Matsikene and Mis a sirised, sirtsuke were notable for their interplay of voices, rhythmic ingenuity and gently grating harmonies. The Quartet plays with remarkable clarity and balance, and when well matched to the material (as in these songs), they produce beautifully crafted miniatures. However, the seven Songs in Honor of the Virgin Mary by Urmas Sisask were nowhere near as charming. Sisask was born two years before Kreek died, but on the evidence of these songs, produces music of a far more conservative bent with much less personality. Perhaps sung by a massive chorus in a religious context with appropriate texts they might make some dramatic impact; played by four speechless guitars, with strophic repetition, they were exceedingly dull.
The remaining works in this grab bag were by more recognizable names: John Tavener’s The Lamb, in the original, is a beautiful choral setting of William Blake’s poem. The lines alternate between simple monophonic melody and moments of dense harmony—some quite luminous, some grittier. Those gritty harmonies ring better with voices; the guitar’s lack of sustain renders them more fleeting. But it was a successful arrangement, emphasizing the canny juxtaposition of material that gives the music its impact.
György Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata is a virtuosic piano composition whose overarching structure is almost a gimmick: the first section uses only two pitches, the second uses three, up to all twelve pitches in the eleventh movements. Early in the composer’s output, it shows him searching for a voice, using the limitations of pitch to constrain his experiments. Some of them are more pianistic than others. Ligeti approved the arrangement of a subset of them as “Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet”, so there is some precedent for the partial set of movements played on this occasion. The program listed six (movements 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 and 10), but I only heard five – I’m fairly certain movement 10 was just not played, and just as well, since the off-kilter rude dance of movement 8 ends the piece rousingly. This was the most satisfying work of the evening. Ligeti’s music is animated by a searching intelligence, and each movement provides surprises. While one might have missed the sheer physicality of the piano’s sonorities, the guitars disclosed details with an x-ray vision, as if penetrating more deeply into Ligeti’s brain as he arranged his pitches in time.
The audience reaction was mixed; the hall was noticeably less populated after intermission, but those who remained gave an especially hearty ovation at the end. They were rewarded with a peculiar encore: an arrangement of the first movement of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet—less than a minute filled with repetition and falling gestures that doesn’t quite add up, and which certainly does not stand on its own. The four guitarists know what they are doing with their instruments, and can coax some fine sound out of them: but to judge by this evening, repertoire eludes them.