Classical music CD review: the aptly named “Enigma” string quartet

By Jonathan Blumhofer

I’m not quite sure if Enigma is simply added to the sum of its parts or if it, in fact, exceeds them. Be that as it may, it is music of a moving and striking originality.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s new string quartet, Enigma, is aptly named.

For one thing, it’s unlike any other string quartet you’ve probably heard. Thorvaldsdottir’s writing evokes the vastness of nature with its inventive use of extended techniques: the beginning of the first of the Quartet’s three movements, for example, seems to evoke an Icelandic glacier or a rock face.

At the same time, she does not hesitate to draw on familiar, even archaic devices. Later in this opening movement are haunting choir-like passages. from Engima the third movement features slowly unfolding melodic lines, like a chain of suspensions, all heard above a drone that, perhaps, functions as a pedal point.

And, lest the feeling that everything is dark and forbidden deter anyone from the room, Thorvaldsdottir somehow manages to get those same materials dancing into the central movement. Admittedly, it is a sinister playful dance – and it is interrupted, before too long, by a return of the chorale – but its technique in Enigma is top notch.

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What to do with all this? This is an excellent question. Even after listening several times, I’m not quite sure if Enigma is simply added to the sum of its parts or if it, in fact, exceeds them.

Be that as it may, it is music of moving and striking originality.

The essence of Thorvaldsdottir’s language in this string quartet is much the same as in his orchestral writing: invigorating, incalculable and elementary – yet appealing to the ear. The contrasts between the “sound episodes” from another world and the recurring gestures of the chorale, for one, are touching. And there are moments of sensual, unabashed beauty, like the radiant, cathartic episode just before the sad coda of the finale.

Composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Photo: Anna Maggy.

There is also an almost messianic quality in Thorvaldsdottir’s writing: his repetition of gestures and devices is anything but predictable, but his procedures play out convincingly and clearly dramatically. In addition, the music is imbued with a spiritual aspect that becomes apparent as you go along. the riddle Duration of 30 minutes. Granted, he’s more of a naturalistic than a dogmatic type – but it’s still there.

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At its best too, Enigma blurs the boundaries between consonance, dissonance and extended techniques. These are terms and concepts that usually have clear definitions. Here, however, they eventually lose their conventional meanings and simply become means for expressive purposes, some lavish, some austere.

That the play goes so well is a testament to the exceptional performance of the Spektral Quartet. A band that revel in stimulating new music, the Spektrals embrace the riddle extremes: its filigree moments – scratch sounds, leaning behind the bridge, seagull effects, etc. However, the whole does not alter the lyrical moments of the score, in particular in the third reflexive movement.

Throughout, they are recorded in extraordinary detail by the engineering team at Sono Luminus.

Together, therefore, a haunting liberation.


Jonathan blumhofer is a composer and violist active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and has been performed by various ensembles including the American Composers Orchestra, the Kiev Philharmonic, the Camerata Chicago, the Xanthos Ensemble and the Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his PhD from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music reviews for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.


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