Bravo to the Kontras Quartet for showing such initiative. For their debut recording, the superb Chicago-based ensemble have eschewed anything resembling the predictable and instead chosen new, recent or 20th-century music from each member's continent. The repertoire, like the group's name (Afrikaans for 'contrasts'), is highly varied in language and effect.
Kevin Volans' String Quartet No. 2 paints a sonic portrait of South Africa, with primitive and folk materials rubbing shoulders with contemporary techniques. The score's subtitle, Hunting:Gathering, suggests the mysterious and jubilant atmospheres Volans evokes in three mesmerising movements.
Another series of vistas is set forth in Hajime Koumatsu's Japanese Folk Song Suite No. 2, which calls on the players to engage in delicate, whimsical and sorrowful materials. The third movement is played entirely pizzicato to simulate a shamisen. The finale, with asymmetrical rhythms comprises a theme and brief variations.
Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet are also short, packing a panoply of pungent, colourful and mournful ideas into small spaces. Similarly compact are Dan Visconti's Ramshackle Songs, 11 movements summoning, in vibrantly modern terms, the nostalgic and energetic products of Tin Pan Alley. Alternately saucy and haunting, the songs require scrupulous shading and control.
As in everything on their inaugural disc, the Kontras players are alert to the minutest facets in the Visconti songs. How they apply such care and personality to core repertoire will be fascinating to hear some day, though more explorations of repertoire beyond the standard would be very welcome.