In performing works by Claude Debussy, Philip Glass, and Arthur Kampela, Momenta Quartet covers three key 20th-century bases on its debut recording: with Debussy's String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10, written in 1893 and his sole contribution to the string quartet repertoire, we're treated to another rendering to add to the plentiful number currently available; the title selection presents the first all-string recording of Glass's Music in Similar Motion (composed in 1969 for solo organ), his signature style already evident at this early stage in his career; also included is the premiere recording of Arthur Kampela's fiendishly difficult Uma Faca Só Lâmina (A Knife All Blade), which the quartet spent years rehearsing and refining before recording. Distilled into its simplest form, Similar Motion juxtaposes the graceful lines of Debussy's quartet with the hypnotic repetitions of Glass's composition and the textural complexity of Kampela's. If any string quartet is up to the challenge of performing such dramatically different works, it's Momenta: founded in 2004 by violist Stephanie Griffin, the NYC-based group, which has premiered over 100 works and collaborated with over 120 living composers, also includes violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Adda Kridler, and cellist Michael Haas.
Firmly rooted in the composer's early minimalism style, Glass's Music in Similar Motion entrances in the way its rhythmic thrust translates into movement so insistent it verges on gyroscopic. The effect is mesmerizing, so much so it threatens to overshadow how the effect is technically achieved. In this case the piece starts with one voice, after which the others enter at staggered intervals and at different pitches relative to the original line. To fully realize the desired effect, violinist Cyrus Beroukhim joined the quartet for a fifteen-minute interpretation whose see-sawing character will no doubt endear itself to Glass aficionados but do little to convert those less enamoured of his style.
Kampela wrote Uma Faca Só Lâmina in 1998 as part of his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University, yet a 2013 performance by Momenta was its first onstage presentation. To call it technically daunting is an understatement, and certainly its tactile micro-pointillism would pose a challenge to even the most skilled musician. A staggering array of techniques is called upon in the six-part, twenty-four-minute work, and the composer's characterization of it as a veritable “theatre of gestures” is apt. In showcasing a plethora of extended techniques and a high-velocity barrage of effects, Uma Faca Só Lâmina exemplifies a savage quality that makes Glass's piece seem genteel, even quaint by comparison.Yes, Debussy's piece is something of a warhorse, yet much like any other similarly branded work overcomes whatever ennui the listener might feel about it once it begins, especially when its luxurious textures arrive with the Kampela work fresh in mind. While still firmly rooted in the harmonic traditions of the late 1900s, Debussy's composition subtly anticipates the advances by Stravinsky and Schoenberg soon to follow, and Momenta invests the performance with conviction, the four players sympathetic to the composer's intentions in their rendering of the movements' moods, be they sombre or high-spirited. On par with the other recording's performances, it's a lyrical rendering that speaks strongly on behalf of Momenta Quartet's range and ability.