Five string quartets performed by four musicians – each musician with an intricate understanding of the world of new music. The Smith Quartet are well established as being the modern music quartet to hear in the United Kingdom – having commissioned over 200 new works and working with the likes of Reich, Nyman and Glass – if you are a fan of minimalism. This concert embraced Philip Glass’ development in compositional style, from the mid 1960s to the early 1990s, through the medium of string quartets.

The Smith Quartet
The Smith Quartet

Each of the string quartets are different in nature, having been written for separate reasons and at distinct points in Glass’ career, yet all tell fairly emotional stories in their own right. The piece with the most punch was saved until last in this concert. In 1991 Glass wrote his final quartet to this date, the Fifth, which quite simply pays homage to “musicality”, according to Glass himself. Interwoven rhythms and contrasting themes provide a fair challenge to the performers. The luminescence of this fifth piece was perhaps written in reaction to the more muted mood of his Fourth Quartet, “Buczak”, and its heartfelt memorial to the artist Brian Buczak. There was a real energy on stage for the Fifth Quartet, so much so that it took energy to watch. I found myself retiring from the last piece quite overwhelmed with the profound effect of the rhythm and relentless motion of the fifth movement.

The Smith Quartet worked extremely well together as a four, constantly assuring each other with the next rhythms and throwing glances around every few bars to check timing and rhythms. With such meticulous repetition it is important that none of the players become out of sync, otherwise the rhythm is lost completely. It did feel, at the beginning of the concert, as though it took them a little while to get into the Third Quartet, but by the third movement, “Grandmother and Kimitake”, the rhythms had settled. Towards the beginning of the concert, the cello felt a bit disconnected from the rest of the quartet. I am still in two minds as to whether this was because the rest of the quartet weren’t quite playing out enough, or because the cellist was playing out too much. Either way, this blended back into balance after the Third Quartet and it didn’t feel like the quartet had a weak link at all, as can sometimes be the case in chamber groups. Their ability to unify such fast rhythms without tiring, right until the last and most intense quartet, was just superb.

Different groups of performers tend to have a specific order in which they like to play the pieces and I even noticed in the interval that the Smith Quartet’s CD of Philip Glass quartets was in a completely different order, pairing no. 1 and no. 5 perhaps due to their similar nature. This was taken into consideration when planning the programme and it is perhaps due to the fact they are both more demanding from the listener. The First Quartet has an oppressive quality, standing out from the rest of the quartets. It was written in two parts in 1966, shortly after Glass finished his studies in Paris. The repetitive patterns are present without screaming of Glass’ staple style. At times the performance felt jarring and the Smith Quartet showed the concentration required on their glances between one another to keep a sense of continuity despite the atonality.

The musicians demanded respect for the music from the listener. Latecomers and noise from the audience was attended through patiently so that each movement of every work could start in silence. With the subtle nature of the music it was important that the quartet did this and meant that the first few bars weren’t lost. It did, however, mean that the deliberate two-minute pause in the First Quartet between the two movements went rather unnoticed as an effect.

A truly talented quartet, the Smith Quartet received applause, stomping, whistles and shouts, and they deserved it. After four bows they came out and played a movement from one of the quartets again as an encore. If someone says that you are repeating yourself, you would think that means you were being tedious. But the Smith Quartet allowed repetition to be exhilarating to watch, and absorbed the listener into the suspense of waiting for the next musical development. The Smith Quartet are an exquisite musical team, who make repetition far from boring.