Revisiting One of the Most Haunting String Quartets of Recent Years
One of the most sepulchral and chilling albums of recent years is the Blair String Quartet’s 2014 recording of Michael Hersch’s Images From a Closed Ward. Hersch takes his inspiration from Michael Mazur’s 1960s series of etchings of grimacing, contorted, sometimes catatonic patients in a Rhode Island mental institution, lost in perpetuity in their own worlds. In a particularly tragic footnote, just when Hersch had finished his own sketches for this work and reached out to his old artist pal, Mazur died. So there’s a doubly elegaic quality to this music.
It’s very slow and ghostly in the purest sense of the word. Stark sheets shift and then evoke sudden and persistent horror, grounded by Felix Wang’s cello – Shostakovich’s macabre String Quartet No. 7 is a persistent reference point. A gentle, graceful dance brings a moment of nostalgia, only to fade mournfully toward black, awash in eerie close harmonies.
Moments where individual voices – Christian Teal and Cornelia Heard’s violins and John Kochanowski’s viola – enter or pair off outnumber passages where the whole quartet is in slow, ineluctably grim motion. Microtonal fragments flicker and then disappear just as suddenly. But when the quartet are going full steam, particularly through a surreal, phantasmagorical, cruelly ironic march before the final clouds descend, the effect is hair-raising. That sense is amplified by Mazur’s drawings, several of them included in the cd booklet.