CLASSICAL MUSIC The Smith Quartet Purcell Room The Sorrel Quartet Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
The Smith Quartet played the Purcell Room on Tuesday and, like all such post-modern ensembles, raised the old question of whether they are really the lively revivers of tradition or a merely contingent gathering of players.

Clues to an answer lay in their choice of repertoire. As it happened, the last, and least inspiring, piece they performed was the one that outwardly owed tradition the most. Nothing in Le Miroir, the third string quartet by the Belgian composer Walter Hus, could not have been borrowed from the early quartets of Hindemith, daring models that superseded this derivation as best exceeds worst. It was a dreary end to an evening that had failed to attract the large congregation expected of this innovative ensemble. Even the presence of Kevin Volans' Hunting:Gathering, much heard this last decade, was an insufficient draw.

That said, its point of view is original: Debussian fragments, aspects of Bartk and minimalist drones strung out on an inspired creative wandering. The composer's aim was to keep the separate parts of his piece from sounding in any way related, paying homage, as it were, to Satie and Cage. The work, even so, achieved at the end a hint of closure. The Smiths judged well its intimate moments. Its beauty was static and cool, like a quiet landscape viewed from a high window.

There were moments of bite in Simon Emmerson's Fields of Attraction, but its raison d'etre, bands of electro-acoustic sound that extended the quartet medium, was not always convincing. The notes themselves were elegant things, phrases and textures from the Boulez stable. But it was Steven Mackey's Great Crossing, Great Divide that on its own terms seized the occasion. Short and direct, this cranky etude said its stuff in the quartet medium - and meant it.

If the Smiths gave evidence neither of a golden future nor a golden past, the all-female Sorrel Quartet, celebrating its 10th anniversary at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday, also sent mixed messages. They played Haydn's "Lark" Quartet with plenty of tone and feeling, and summoned almost orchestral sounds for the B flat quartet of Brahms. Yet here was a piece from a canonic composer who clearly found the genre unsatisfactory. Quintets and sextets were his preferences, a choice suggested by the striving nature of much of the work's invention.

It was left to the Sorrels to show Russia as the source of much of this century's most convincing continuation of the quartet idiom. Elena Firsova's Ninth Quartet, The Door Is Closed, a Slavic reflection on death, made allusions to Shostakovich that implied a sense of tradition passing to a new generation - if you like, a form of immortality. Harmonically barren, the musical parallels offered for its desolate theme were also part of an efficient structure. Shostakovich's own Seventh Quartet of 1960 was the evening's most cheering event. Though the Sorrels' view was unusually romantic, its wit and pith survived intact, products of a cogent language couched unequivocally in terms of four solo strings.

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