I have a hard time recommending this disc. Michael Nyman's music remains controversial, and is sometimes dismissed as the banal counterpart of Philip Glass (and Glass is himself occasionally dismissed as banal). I wish to emphasize that I have enjoyed much of what Nyman has done - though I admit that I have found his style to be particularly effective when accompanying film. I found less to admire in these three string quartets, though it isn't only the composer's fault.
The disc opens with the second quartet from 1988, which is based on melodic figurations and rhythmic elements of dance; it is full of energy and contrast and shifting rhythmic patterns and sounds, in fact, a bit more like Reich or Terry Riley than Glass, though subtlety is apparently not in Nyman's toolbox. None of the material is particularly memorable in itself, but there is an energy to the music that at least ensures that it avoids being boring. The performances are problematic, however - though the Balanescu quartet plays with plenty of energy, there is little nuance or variation, and virtually no dynamic range - I don't know whether the composer asked for fortissimo applied throughout, but that is pretty much what he gets. Intonation is also occasionally questionable, but it is not a huge problem in this work and gives at least the sixth movement the possibly appropriate atmosphere of a country dance performed by festive (overly festive) fiddlers for whom joy trumps precision.
In the third quartet the problems increase. The quartet was written in 1990 as a "transcription" of the composer's own choral work Out of the Ruins. It is darker in character than the other two works, and seems to try to express elegiac, passionate yearning. This is also where the thought of "poor man's Philip Glass" is hard to shake off - the gestures are to an extent similar, but Nyman lacks Glass's subtlety and range (and Glass is rarely particularly subtle). The performances fall completely apart, however. One inevitably wonders what the Kronos would do of this one - not that the Kronos has any kind of monopoly on performing this type of music, but the harsh, brutal, jarring and seemingly desperate and futile attempts from the Balanescus to cover all the notes do not make for a comfortable listening experience.
The first quartet dates from 1985 and is the longest of the three. It consists of twelve "figures" of approximately two minutes each; development is persistently avoid within each figure - nor is there much development over the course of the work, though the transitions between them are decidedly abrupt. It quotes various sources, including Schoenberg, Alex North and John Bull, but the result sounds exactly like a string quartet adaptation of the soundtrack to an early Nintendo computer game - diatonic and with simple polyphony, but incessant and with to little going on to count as "tonal". Yes, I see what Nyman is trying to do in linking, interlinking and deconstructing the differences between his disparate materials, but "clever" ideas have their merits determined largely by the results, and in this case the results are not particularly pleasant. Again, I don't know if it was the composer's intention, but the Balanescu plays everything fortissimo and as hard as possible.
They also receive a dry and close sound, which hardly helps. Though I can see that many reviewers and critics disagree with me, I found the contents of this disc mildly engaging at best and quite unpleasant at worst. Now, I always try to admit to myself that the reason I fail to see the qualities others apparently see might be that the problem is on me - that it is I who have failed to grasp something. But in this case I frankly find that rather hard to believe.