Music Review: Alchemy / Jupiter String Quartet / Bernadette Harvey (piano) / Marquis
This new release by Marquis features chamber works by three distinguished contemporary composers in excellent performances. The title, Alchemy, suggests a spiritual journey of purification, mysterious sounds and shimmering colours — something that can be argued to be true for the works featured here. It should be noted that all works were commissioned by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music and all of them, apart from Secret Alchemy, are world premiere recordings.
The album begins with the impressive Piano Quintet by American composer Pierre Jalbert, composed in 2017. It is an ambitious work cast in four movements. The first movement called Mannheim Rocket starts off with a bold statement, where a musical figure keeps speeding up until it reaches static-sounding string harmonies (I could describe the effect that is evoked like that of a rapid charge and discharge of a vessel in motion). The Kyrie that follows is, as one would expect, a chant-like movement, almost lamenting in nature, with some amazing hypnotic pianissimo sections. This is followed by a scherzo with a playful, virtuosic interaction between piano and strings. The final movement, called Pulse, is a fast tour de force giving the impression of a never-ending energetic frenzy, despite brief thematic intermissions.
The second work featured on this album is the Piano Quartet (2005) by another American composer, Steven Stucky. It is a piece that consists of many different sections within its one-movement structure which manages to sustain a cohesive whole. What is impressive in this work is the overall condensed structure. The adagio parts, in particular, with their bell-like qualities and piano trills are especially beautiful, evocative of nocturnal episodes. And while the music often seems to come to a dreamy standstill with near-impressionistic effects, it is often awoken by the juxtaposition of jagged, jazzy rhythms.
An Australian composer is also featured on this release, namely Carl Vine with his Fantasia for Piano Quintet (2013), and what is possibly the most accessible piece on the album. The composer states that he set out to create a formal structure which gradually became more fluid. And while the quintet features many different instrumental combinations between strings and piano, it is when all instruments come together that the lush quality of the score is revealed. This is a work with discernible melodic lines that is both substantial and highly rewarding.
The last work featured here is another work by Jalbert, namely his Secret Alchemy for Violin, Viola, Cello and Piano (2012). While the work is not programmatic, Jalbert admits that the starting point was provided by “imagining the air of secrecy and mysticism surrounding a medieval alchemist at work”. Indeed the first movement, titled Mystical features magnificent cello and viola contributions that lead to a mysterious territory where string arpeggios and glissandos create a quasi-mystical atmosphere. The Scherzo that follows is dominated by some frenetic piano writing and string pizzicatos that produce a restless pursuit. For me, however, it is the sublime third movement, titled Timeless, mysterious, reverberant that is the heart of the piece. With chant-like themes and a resounding effect from the piano, Jalbert has tried to simulate “the sound and reverberation in a large cathedral”. It is a solemn interlude with nocturnal otherworldly sounds that seems to inhabit other spheres. The unstoppable burst of energy of the last movement brings the music to an impressive finale.
All four pieces are high quality works that deserve to enter the contemporary chamber music repertoire. The playing by the Jupiter String Quartet and Bernadette Harvey at the piano is poised, precise and elegant. These are demanding pieces that don’t just rely on a handful of technically skilled players but also, as the title of the release suggests, on imaginative musical insights. The musicians involved in this splendid project seem to possess both. The recorded sound is excellent throughout and the fact that three of the works featured here are world premiere recordings makes this release even more special.