This trio of string quartets by Elliott Miles McKinley provide a varied feast of textures, ideas and emotions that delight the ear and warm the soul. His soundscape approach, relying more on combinations than solo lines with accompaniment, is not unknown in the literature, but the magical mixture of vibrant jazz, traditional forms and copious amounts of unison (OK, two cups of dissonance to balance all) combine memorably and in an instantly accessible fashion.
The oh-so-Western hues of No. 4 with its long liquid lines (if only the vibratos always matched) and energetically rendered puncutation(and near-perfect ensemble from The Martinů Quartet) evoke not just Copland and Ives, but the equally skillful string craft of Eddie Sauter (Stan Getz’s masterful 1961 Focus album). Then the “Presto Vivace,” intriguingly glued together with an upper-range pedal, compellingly forceful if a bit tight, sets the stage for the contrasting, oddly whimsical, deliciously titled Morbidamente con Movemento, whose gooey final utterance slides into and lingers in memory for days.
The Finale’s “Pizz ‘R Us”—a saucy combination of fun and angst: superbly balanced by recording engineer Radek Rejšek—winds down with a lazy walk away from the rhythmic and harmonic fray, punctuated at every turn before yielding to consonance. The Stamic Quartet (and in particular cellist Vladimír Leixner’s solo interventions) deliver No. 3’s dichotomy of dankly brooding and nervously childlike lines, colours and contrasts with considerable skill and understanding. The fiendishly difficult monophonic language from viola and cello is appropriately dark and emotive but unanimity in the changes must wait for another occasion. Yet the through-composed architecture is built with strength, ease and understanding as required and, after a mini-catalogue of themes and motifs past, perfectly conveys McKinley’s slight sliver of hope in the last adieu.
The fifth quartet is a compositional quilt of styles and moods that begs a push on the replay button. Amongst its features are a Rite of Spring opening where pizz replaces the bass drum, a Ragtime that’s a tad quick for Joplin’s fabled “ragged time,” a brutal Tango that searches and swings, an intensely expressive Chorale, a drunken swagger and a “tidy up” coda that reviews, revises and reflects before slipping away into the night. Reminiscent of Hindemith’s ability to write in any style, McKinley’s art is as varied as the planet and happily repays repeated visits. JWR