Iskra String Quartet: ISKRA
1631 Recordings

Issued on David Wenngren and Mattias Nilsson's 1631 Recordings, ISKRA is a recording of contemporary classical works performed by the Iskra String Quartet (cellist Charlotte Eksteen, violist Sarah Chapman, and violinists Ivo Stankov and James Underwood) that, without any compromise to its artistic integrity, renders classical music about as accessible as it could possibly be. Among the reasons accounting for that are, first, the compositions' melodic richness and, two, their relative brevity, with each being essentially song-length (the album itself weighs in at a svelte thirty-six minutes).

Tellingly, many of the composers involved regularly write for film, television, and theatre, contexts that demand from the composer a keen sensitivity to mood and ear for melody. Included among the seven featured on ISKRA are: cellist Peter Gregson, who recently composed the soundtrack to A Little Chaos; David Julyan, the scorer of several Christopher Nolan films, including Memento, Insomnia, and The Prestige; and Tony-nominated Alex Baranowski, who composed the soundtrack to McCullin (as if to render the theme explicit, the piece contributed by Ólafur Arnalds is titled “Film Credits”). The quartet has established close relationships with a number of the composers featured on the release, among them Arnalds, Baranowski, and Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, and the group likewise has collaborated with artists such as Vampire Weekend, Sufjan Stevens, and My Brightest Diamond.

Also included on his own Touch album, Gregson's “Chorale (Five)” has to be one of the cellist's most beautiful and fully realized compositions and as such lends itself splendidly to this quartet interpretation (Gregson himself sits in); in little more than four minutes, the piece manages to be both moving and celebratory as it stirringly scales its dramatic peak. English composer Julyan is represented by two pieces, the first, “Let Me Sleep” a brief, two-minute meditation of melancholy character, and the second, “Heliopause,” the recording's most mysterious and adventurous setting, sonically speaking, in the way it adds electronics-styled textures to its strings-laden design. With a subtle hint of rustic flavour blended into its rousing presentation, Luke Anthony's “Breathe” exudes a yearning and quietly uplifting quality that suggests affinity with an Aaron Copland work such as Appalachian Spring. In addition, Arnalds opts for heartfelt melancholy in his poignant “Film Credits,” whereas Jóhannsson's “Melodia (i)” derives a strong rhythmic thrust from Eksteen's insistent cello patterns.

In a few cases, the quartet becomes a quintet when piano's added. Baranowski's resoundingly emotive “For Then” augments the strings' luscious unison playing with delicate, time-keeping chords by the composer himself. Pianist Christina McMaster plays on two resplendent settings, Isobel Waller-Bridge's “Blue Notebook” and Paul Frith's “Mother's Theme,” both of which prominently feature her elegant playing. Surprisingly, the shortness of some of the album's pieces doesn't work against them or the recording as a whole, for that matter. Many of the nine settings are like exquisite morsels that cumulatively make for a thoroughly satisfying meal.

November 2015