MUSIC / Flawed by their enthusiasm: Nick Kimberley listens to the Smith Quartet at the ICA

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The Independent Culture
Days after the Kronos Quartet played London, the Smith Quartet appeared at the Institute of Contemporary Arts with Kevin Volans' Hunting: Gathering, a work indelibly associated with Kronos. Is this the Smith's fate, for ever to tread the trail blazed by Kronos? Perhaps, but any quartet would be foolish to ignore the large corpus of Kronos- generated music. The critical consensus - I don't entirely agree - is that Kronos is now so eclectic it lacks direction. If that is so, it's a good moment for the Smith Quartet to emerge from the shadow.

Certainly this performance (programmed by Adrian Jack as part of New MusICA 3) displayed confidence, although there were a few problems, as Hunting: Gathering suggested. The Smith's rhythmic sense is looser than Kronos's, which is fine: there is a hint of the martial in Kronos's precision. Yet this quartet needs a firm pulse. Too often here the rhythm attenuated, expansive moments drifted. Although momentary, the lapses marred an otherwise sure performance.

Just as Volans' work reflects his African past, so memory was at play elsewhere. Sinan Sivaskan admits that his Panic in Needle Park is 'about being a teenager in 1969', when Sivaskan was 15 years old. I can only speculate on what intoxicants he played with, since the piece has a distinctly druggy aura. Snatches of reverb evoked sensory disorientation which soon became deprivation as the players were driven offstage by an amniotic swell of taped noise so loud that several listeners stuck their fingers in their ears. Very 1960s. Finally the musicians reasserted themselves: an engaging, yet still disturbing piece.

Adrian Jack's First String Quartet, one of two premieres on offer, was shaped around momentary glimpses of a melody, hovering like a song at the edge of memory. Gentle rocking figures continually agitated the suave surface that the fragment generated, and as the melodic impulse shifted towards disintegration, the tune repeatedly pulled things back together. Brief and moving, the work was attentively performed.

Graham Fitkin's Scar, the other premiere, established a basic tension between bright percussive episode and a mournful intoning from the cello, which eventually brought the piece to a climactic sigh. This was as beguiling as anything I've heard by Fitkin.

The remaining work, Laszlo Vidovszky's Danses Allemandes, is, the composer says, 'a homage to the Viennese style . . . a pale and obscure copy of a disappearing musical era'. Perhaps too pale and obscure. Its reticence was tantalising and infuriating: or was it that the cross-rhythms evaded the players?

A fallible performance, then, but that could be an asset to set against the glossy precision of so many quartets. The Smith Quartet is still in the process of defining itself. A performance like this, flawed and exciting, suggests that what emerges will be worth watching.

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