Bathed in a wash of soft blue light, St John’s Smith Square was home to a remarkable concert on Friday night with the Smith Quartet presenting all five of Philip Glass’ string quartets. The performance, played with the sensitivity of real experts in this repertoire, provided an insightful and absorbing overview to the many different sides of Glass.

© The Smith Quartet
© The Smith Quartet

The quartet had arranged the works in a sequence that initially seemed rather illogical – nos. 3, 1, 4, 2, and then 5 – but this was obviously the product of a lot of thought, differing as it does only slightly from the ordering on their CD version (3, 2, 4, 1, 5). The ordering heard tonight made more sense to me, as it better highlighted the contrasts among the different pieces. Nos. 2 and 3 are both Glass in his more generic mode, cycling around neat repeating shapes and patterns with oscillating thirds galore, while nos. 1, 4 and 5 are all much harder to categorise, suggesting a greater range of reference points and styles. Each transition between quartets in this concert was hence a slight stylistic shift, which kept us guessing through the whole programme.

Glass’ early work doesn’t get the exposure it might do, having been eclipsed by the products of his hugely fertile later years, but his First Quartet is well worth hearing. Dating from 1966, just after his studies in Paris with the famous French teacher Nadia Boulanger, it’s a piece full of harsh intervals and intricate, dissonant harmonies which shows a clear European influence, and seems just fractionally less far than you’d expect from the “crazy creepy music” (as he later called it) of his continental contemporaries. That said, though, the piece also shows an interest in repetition – and also in textural clarity – that comes as no surprise given his later output. It’s a little like a recording of Webern with the needle locked in a groove.

The Fourth Quartet (1989), on the other hand, looks back to even older European music, its bold chordal opening apparently flirting with the ghost of Schubert. With a breezy lyricism that I for one don’t tend to expect of Glass, this work has a soft, emotive centre with a winning insistency to its simple melodies. A plain major scale is the thematic crux of the third and final movement, and it’s a hugely poignant conclusion.

The Fifth (1991) is brashly labelled “a truly great string quartet” in Signum Classics’ slightly strident programme notes, and I can’t say it won me over quite that far. But it is certainly the work of a composer hugely comfortable writing in this medium and able to write convincing showy music for strings. Glass works in a few cheeky stylistic references, with snippets of light jazz and a hint of a waltz at one point, and sometimes (as in the fourth of the five movements) he slightly expands the reach of his harmonic range. This sounded like the hardest of the five pieces technically speaking, but the Smith Quartet sailed through it with ease.

My lack of discussion of the Smith Quartet themselves until now certainly isn’t meant as a slight: it’s just that they presented the music so clearly and with such transparency that I was left only thinking about the pieces themselves. While this approach didn’t make for wildly compelling renditions of the less interesting quartets, it certainly brought out the best in the others. Some variablility in terms of quality is perhaps inevitable with a composer as prolific as Glass, but when he gets it right, it’s more than worth it – especially when his music is in the hands of such excellent advocates.

It’s interesting to note that Glass’ fellow canonical minimalist Steve Reich has recently had his own complete string quartets performed – in New York, with ACME, and reviewed on Bachtrack by Amanda Keil. Proof, as if it were needed, of the huge differences which have always existed between these two composers.