Eleanor Alberga string quartets show individuality

Jamaican-born composer Eleanor Alberga brings a fresh perspective to the string quartet genre. Alberga is also a concert pianist. At times when all four instruments play chords the ensemble seems to resemble a piano.

But Alberga is also married to a violinist, and her writing for strings is idiomatic and practical. She also has a strong sense of rhythm. Her forceful syncopation may draw on her Caribean culture, but there’s nothing cliche about it.

Her music (to my ears) doesn’t sound Jamaican. And it doesn’t sound European. Rather, it sounds like the work of a true individual. Alberga uses the language and form of the classical string quartet to tell her own story.

String Quartet No. 1 had an extra-musical inspiration — a physics lecture on how matter forms and reforms. The work has that quality, moving from one section to another, always reworking the same material.

Alberga’s second quartet (in my opinion) develops that idea still further. The entire 15-minute work grows out the initial motif, slowly unfolding and transforming (instead of forming and reforming).

As Alberga writes, “Whilst they were created in quite different ways, the first two quartets are more stylistically related than may seem obvious.”

String Quartet No. 3 was written seven years later. Alberga seems more comfortable with the form. There are more technical demands on the instruments, and Alberga uses those techniques to great effect.

It’s a beautiful work, and a complex one. Repeated listening yields fresh details that add to the whole.

The Ensemble Arcadiana performs with confidence. These works have extremely difficult passages — both rhythmically and technically. The quartet seems to take them in stride. They turn the challenges into passages of great beauty and strong emotion.

Where to place Alberga’s quartets? Perhaps after Shostakovich’s. Definitely in your library.

Eleanor Alberga: String Quartets

Ensemble Arcadiana

Navona NV 6234

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