Listening to ISKRA is like listening to a Greatest Hits of the Past, Present and Future. If you’re a fan of modern composition, you’ve probably already heard the work of this quartet ~ you just might not know that you’ve heard them. If you’ve ever seen Jóhann Jóhannsson or Ólafur Arnards in concert, you may have been only a few yards away from them; and if you own certain works by Jamie xx, Radiohead, or Dustin O’Halloran (and have a hard copy), take a look at the credits; you might find them.
ISKRA gives them the opportunity to step into the spotlight for the first time. Arriving five years after the Discoveries & Inventions EP, ISKRA is a collection of contributions from various luminaries in the field that exudes quality even before it is played. The album contains compositions by the aforementioned Arnalds and Jóhannsson, along with Peter Gregson, David Julyan (one new track and another from the noir film Insomnia), film composer Alex Baranowski and more. As a smorgasbord of music new and old, this album is a showcase for the intelligent end of the genre. The selection of pieces is a wise one, as they share an active tone; but the performances hold it all together. The most recognizable tunes (Peter Gregson’s “Chorale”, from Touch; Jóhann Jóhannsson’s “Melodia (i), from Fordlandia; and Ólafur Arnalds’ “Film Credits” (from Living Room Songs) fold into the other tracks as gently as eggs in batter. This makes us appreciate both the quartet and the full array of composers. If you’ve ever liked any of those songs, you’ll probably like the rest, which makes the album a cavalcade of discovery.
None of this would work were it not for the effectiveness of the players: Ivo Stankov (violin), James Underwood (violin), Sarah Chapman (viola) and Charlotte Eksteen (cello). The quartet has a clear understanding of the emotion at the heart of these tunes, and plays with compassion. In lesser hands, these songs might have lost their original power; here, they are amplified. The blossom at the end of “Chorale (Five)” seems especially inspired, as Gregson steps in to provide extra cello; it’s like having extra icing on an already delicious cake. Cast from its film score moorings, “Let Me Sleep” seems less bittersweet than triumphant. Sweet piano-laced tunes are offered by Baranowski and prolific scorer Isobel Waller-Bridge, and sit in the center of the album like contented cats. Luke Anthony’s “Breathe” is a late album highlight, packed with pathos; Paul Frith’s “Mother’s Theme” is suitably dark; and Julyan’s “Heliopause” makes an exciting conclusion.
There’s a reason all of these composers trusted Iskra String Quartet with their work; these performers know how to bring out the best in the compositions. They’ve come a long way from playing Wesley and Barber; we credit them for focusing on the newest generation of composers. (Richard Allen)
Release date: 26 October