Smith Quartet: Philip Glass

There would be no music without repetition. No note, theme or rhythm can be itself until it has been repeated. But this truth should not be an excuse for repetitiveness. Repetitiveness is the hallmark of Philip Glass's music, and his five string quartets, played here by the Smith Quartet, are no exception. Only the first, composed before the all-important 1967 encounter with Steve Reich's Piano Phase, suggests that there may be merit in variety, with nicely crafted hanging dissonances and textural play. But the uniformity of style in the other works should not be mistaken for uniform quality. Only the fifth quartet stands scrutiny here. The others – including the piecemeal third quartet, comprised of excerpts from the score to Paul Schrader's film about Yukio Mishima, and the trivial response of the second to Samuel Beckett's prose poem Company – range from fair to middling to clumsy.

The gifted Smith Quartet excel in a wide range of modern repertoire from Feldman to Crumb. Yet here they were scratchy, diffident, out of sync and out of tune; attempts at expression sounded misplaced, while the effort to excise it failed too. Glass's figurations – derived from classic, messing-around- at-the-keyboard technique – did not work, turning the musicians into incompetent executors. The valuable sense of space and peace that good minimalism affords didn't arrive because there was nothing solid to build on.

The fifth quartet, played last, worked because it is playable: its energy builds on rather than suffocates the warmth and intelligence brought by the musicians. The lines, ideas and players all bonded, eventually gathering in the luminous gladness that suffuses the final movement – a joyous balm to the ears that couldn't have come sooner.

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