Formosa Quartet sample Hungary and Taiwan (sort of)

I really like the selections on this album and the performances. The premise? Not so much.

The liner notes state that the quartet wants to explore cultural and geographic diversity. “In this recording, we begin to focus on two of these regions [of the world] by bringing you music born of Hungarian and Taiwanese soil — much in the spirit of Béla Bartók, the ethnomusicological father of us all, and in tribute to our own namesake, the island of Formosa.”

To me, that’s really a stretch — and one that doesn’t need to be made. The four compositions in this release complement and contrast with each other nicely, without having much in common (save the instrumentation).

Representing Hungary is Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 and Dana Wilson’s “Hungarian Folk Songs.” Bartók’s 1928 quartet uses his own take on serialism, with extended techniques for the strings. The Formosa Quartet takes on this repertoire standard with relish, infusing the music with vitality and excitement.

While Bartók’s modernist quartet was far removed from Hungarian folk music, Dana Wilson’s 2008 work embraces it. Written for the Formosa Quartet, Wilson embraces not just the melodies, but the sound of Hungarian folk music. The violins especially have the rough-hewn quality of Romani fiddles. My impression is the Formosa Quartet has as much playing this work as I did listening to it.

Lei Liang’s “song Recollections” is another work written for the quartet. Here the inspiration is the music of the indigenous Taiwanese. It’s an engaging work, blending (to my ears) Australian aboriginal drones with Chinese pentatonic scales.

“Four Taiwanese Folk Songs” by Wei-Chieh Lin presents four simple and evocative arrangements of music from several Taiwanese populations (native and immigrant). The quartet delivers expressive and beautiful performances of these songs.

I liked the overall sound of the Formosa Quartet. Their playing, both individually and collectively, has a bit of an edge. And there’s a youthful enthusiasm that runs through the album.

And in the end, that’s what I liked about the album — the quality of the performances (and the material). Just not the theme.

From Hungary to Taiwan
Dana Wilson; Lei Liang; Bela Bartok; Wei-Chieh Lin
Formosa Quartet
Bridge Records, 9519

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