The Quatuor Bozzini belongs to that select group of fearless string quartets, spearheaded by the Ardittis and also including the JACK Quartet and the Diotima, that specialise in contemporary music. Since the Montréal-based group was formed 20 years ago, it has given more than 300 premieres and, true to form, the last concert in a short UK tour included two more, from John Woolrich and Scott Wilson.
Débricollage is the latest addition to Woolrich’s A Book of Inventions, an ongoing collection of such compact pieces that will eventually consist of 10 quartets. His title is borrowed from a kinetic sculpture by Yves Tinguely, in which an assemblage of everyday objects move around each other according to unrevealed rules. Woolrich’s piece also brings together unexpected, apparently unrelated ideas, and creates a narrative to bind them. Sudden brief unisons anchor the music and launch it in fresh directions, whether those are long-limbed melodic lines or clockwork pizzicatos. A fragile, teasing coherence gradually emerges.
If Débricollage is all about making musical sense from an unpromising jumble of elements then Wilson’s A Mezza Voce is an exercise in slow-motion deconstruction. It takes the Adagio from the first of Haydn’s Op 76 quartets, blurs its familiar outlines and sometimes atomises them altogether, allowing just the occasional recognisable phrase to emerge out of its soup of harmonies, only to be submerged again. Though the product of an entirely different musical process, the result isn’t a million miles away from some parts of Gondola, by Wilson’s fellow Canadian (at least by residence) Linda Catlin Smith, whose quiet, rocking harmonies and spidery, fugitive melodies were presented with a mixture of elusiveness and touching warmth by the Bozzini.
Framing these enigmatic pieces were two mainstream works from the previous century, which were played with understated authority yet remained in their distinctive ways equally mysterious. They were Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, from 1914, in which the constantly changing perspective and jerky, dislocating movements create what is perhaps music’s nearest equivalent to cubism, and Shostakovich’s 11th Quartet, a sequence of seven linked movements that seems like a parade of memories, both painful and consoling.