Suspended and caught in the moment between sleeping and waking, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Enigma inhabits a hazy, hallucinogenic dream-world of half-formed shapes fusing hypnotically in and out of focus. It’s a striking first string quartet by the young Icelandic composer, rendered here with glacial grandeur by the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet, whose acutely detailed, inordinately sensitive playing precisely pitches itself at the boiling centre of still-forming immensities.
But how to describe it? Enigma is Arvo Pärt in extremis, Vaughan Williams at his most desiccated, the whole shot through with dislocating slivers of Alban Berg, Bartók and Janáček. Composed to accompany video images by long-time collaborator, Sigurður Guðjónsson, their absence here neither dilutes nor diminishes the impact of this dense, intense music, lit up by moments of oxygenated beauty.
At just 28 minutes, it is as compact as it is concentrated. Cast in three movements, it emerges out of a fizzing blur of white noise, still-forming string timbres asserting themselves even as they fade into and out of definition. From the off, it’s clear this is no ordinary string quartet, Thorvaldsdóttir conjuring diffused, atomised textures that suggest Bartók filtered through an electronic go-between in her elasticated opening movement.
Devoid of any titular or tempo-led clues, Movement II is a rather louche, and simultaneously lowering, take on a conventional Scherzo. Appropriate to the work’s title, it sounds inscrutably mysterious, its recurring, drone-like pulse lit up by bird-like trills and the luminous chittering of atomised string voices.
The sirenic, otherworldly bird calls that introduce the finale arc back to the opening, accommodating and reconciling its dyspepsia into a lamenting, major key resolution that eventually dissolves into intangible washes of evaporating sound.
In a nutshell: a masterly conceived and executed attempt to bring the string quartet into the pandemic-induced paranoia of the here and now.
Composer: Anna Thorvaldsdóttir
Performers: Spektral Quartet
Label: Sono Luminous DSL92250