Buy this album on iTunes: Sculthorpe: The Complete String Quartets with Didjeridu – Del Sol String Quartet & Stephen Kent

The string quartet was central to Peter Sculthorpe’s output. His last, No 18, had its premiere on his 81st birthday. He undoubtedly liked string instruments because of their ability to sustain long-held notes. Drones play a pivotal part, not only in imitation of indigenous music, but as an aural equivalent to the Australian outback. Strings are also adept at imitating birdcalls, as the third movement of Quartet No 14 shows. Sculthorpe’s quartet writing with its drones and repetitive ostinati contain all of this, and through subtle harmonic and rhythmic juxtapositions he suggests the life with which this landscapes teems. Neither the terrain nor his musical depiction of it is remotely passive. 

In 2001 Sculthorpe was introduced to a young Aboriginal didjeridu player, William Barton, who asked Sculthorpe to write for him. The composer responded by adding a didjeridu part to some of his orchestral works, notably Earth Cry and Kakadu. He also added the instrument to his existing String Quartets Nos 12, 14 and 16 – the ones with the most significant Aboriginal themes. Later works conceived with didjeridu in mind include the 18th Quartet and the Requiem of 2004. While it has been argued that the inclusion of the didjeridu in the orchestral music can seem intrusive, its place in the intimate realm of the quartet proves ideal. Sculthorpe highlights the instrument’s many imitative sounds in introductions or postludes, and subtly integrates it into the string texture where its many colours and rhythmic flexibility enhance the music’s earthiness.

The American Del Sol Quartet’s obvious understanding of this ultra-Australian music, their fine textural blending and depth of tone all contribute to the success of these performances. Stephen Kent is an Englishman who became interested in the didjeridu while working as musical director for Circus Oz. His choices complement the quartet’s work beautifully, and do not feel intrusive in the slightest. Moreover, the recording quality is among the best I have heard on a new quartet release for some time. A blu-ray disc accompanies the CDs, plus extensive and informative notes by Graeme Skinner. 

The Goldner String Quartet also recorded these works (apart from No 18), minus the didjeridu part, for the Tall Poppies label. They bring greater intensity to the dramatic moments while the Del Sol are more atmospheric overall. Each complements the other and both are extremely good. I sincerely hope Peter got to hear these wonderful performances.