The Dead Man 1 Variations
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The following review is an excerpt from Editor's Corner (April 2019) which can be read in its entirety here.
I believe it is safe to say that the Molinari String Quartet is the most active chamber ensemble in Canada devoted almost exclusively to the performance and propagation of contemporary music. They have just released their 13th disc on the ATMA label, as well as having contributed to portrait recordings of Jim Hiscott and Otto Joachim over the years. In addition, the Molinaris have been a prime factor in the development of the genre by hosting, since 2002, a biennial international string quartet competition for composers under the age of 40. Three of their ATMA discs have been devoted to early laureates of the competition.
Their most recent release, following discs of music by international luminaries Gubaidulina, Kurtág and Schnittke, features four works written between 1988 and 1996 by American John Zorn (ATMA ADC2 2774 atmaclassique.com/En). The disc begins with what has become Zorn’s most frequently performed work, Cat O’ Nine Tails, a pastiche often reminiscent of a Roadrunner cartoon. Although in one movement, it is constructed of many brief fragments, in the words of Ranzenhofer: “By turns sparkling or gritty, virtuoso improvisations, musical allusions, harmonic sequences and sonic mash-ups – all these components freely combine in this dazzling, disconcerting and droll work.” Zorn himself suggests that the next work, The Dead Man, is “like the soundtrack of a sordid and sadomasochistic film set in a gloomy New York or Tokyo basement.” Although divided into 13 movements, again they are brief fragments ranging from 20 to 90 seconds, juxtaposing wild mood swings.
The final two works are much darker. Momento Mori is presented as an emotional autobiography composed in 1992 and is dedicated to Zorn’s longtime collaborator Ikue Mori. At 27 minutes it is by far the most substantial work on offer here. While it too juxtaposes a plethora of moods, from meditative repose to extraordinary tension, there is none of the comic flamboyance of the preceding tracks. The final work, Kol Nidre, was written “in a single 30-minute burst of inspiration” according to Zorn, and Ranzenhofer says it “uses music stripped of all impure sonorities to reveal a world of inner peace.” For its seven-minute duration we are drawn into an almost medieval stasis of entirely tonal, gentle unison melody more suggestive of Arvo Pärt, or Shostakovich in his more contemplative moments, than the Zorn of the earlier works. Throughout the disc the Molinaris are superb, finding just the right balance between abrasive exuberance, virtuosic hilarity, quiet desperation and haunting beauty as required.