The Calder Quartet’s recent collaborations have included projects with Vampire Weekend, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and The National. The musicians’ association with Peter Eötvös (born 1944) goes back some years and they have given numerous performances of Korrespondenz (1992), inspired by an exchange of letters between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father Leopold during 1778, a tragic time for the Mozart family. Eötvös’s music derives from spoken language, its sounds and intonations and even dialects. Korrespondenz plays with emotional and tonal relationships; the viola represents Wolfgang and the cello Leopold with the violins framing each movement, hovering with glissandos and abundant pizzicato and includes imitating Mozart’s calligraphy with wild scratching conveying anger and anxiety.
In Debussy’s String Quartet the Calder members approach was muscular; textures were thicker and plucking more abrupt as part of a decisive and dramatic reading. Gallic lyricism may have been a little lacking but it was a persuasive and energetic account.
The focus of the evening was the world premiere of Eötvös’s The Sirens Cycle, settings of James Joyce, Homer and Kafka for high soprano. The extraordinarily demanding vocals were taken on superbly by Piia Komsi (sister of Anu) at short notice, following the withdrawal of Barbara Hannigan. Komsi was amazing.
The opening sections take words from Joyce’s Ulysses; the eponymous sirens are brassy Dublin barmaids. Popular song melds with slang and deformed words, as Joyce’s stream of consciousness narrative is reflected in Eötvös’s fragmented and stratospheric vocal line. The second literary source is Homer’s ancient Greek, introduced by double-stopped trills, completely different to Joyce’s comic Irish/English. This is a straight re-telling of the myth of the Sirens, grave and dramatic, the soprano also playing a bell. The last section ‘Das Schweigen der Sirenen (the silence of the sirens) captures Kafka’s ironic re-imagining of the myth with sirens who do not sing at all, adding a further layer of ambivalence in meaning and music, here Eötvös’s adherence to the blend of serialism and aleatoric composition pioneered by his mentors Boulez and Stockhausen.