Solem Quartet: Painted Light

This inventively curated album from the ever exploratory Solem Quartet presents music that is awash with colour. The refined beauty of Edmund Finnis’s Devotions and stained-glass luminosity of Camden Reeves’s The Blue Windows are complemented by works by Lili Boulanger and Henriëtte Bosmans from the early twentieth century, when the depth and vividness of colour in Impressionist paintings seemed to spill into music.

A sense of awed wonder before the natural world informs Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s Earth, for which the Quartet is joined by the composer as vocalist, while Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now – heard here in an arrangement by the Quartet’s violinist William Newell – provides a delicate lesson in perspective.

"Edmund Finnis’s Quartet No. 3 is a spacious work in eight short movements, and the subtitle ‘Devotions’ defines its character. Much is slow, and even when there is rhythmic activity, it doesn’t affect the stately harmonic progress, tonally based, with a quasi-religious feeling and echoes of plainsong. It was commissioned by the Solem Quartet, who completely inhabit the idiom ... The Blue Windows by Camden Reeves, another Solem commission, is most definitely visually inspired – by Chagall’s stained-glass America Windows. It may be slow, but it couldn’t be more of a contrast with the Finnis: textures are more sparse, there’s far greater use of silence to punctuate phrases and tonality is more fractured. Again, the patient pacing of the performance produces something of real power ... Silences also have a place in Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s World, where her words and music use rests to inflect her vocals. Finally, an arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ takes the song into regions which compromise its simplicity, but it’s very sympathetically performed."

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"Solem quartet's playing is sensitive, wonderfully blended, incisive where needed, but above all powerfully communicative ... [Finnis' String Quartet No. 3] alternates prayerful movements with others suggesting the human heartbeat – at times gently throbbing, at others irregular and anxious. Finnis’s music is minutely attentive to the careful weighting of harmony and dissonance, so that every bar draws the listener in and feels urgently consequential ... The longest single track on the album is Camden Reeves’s 2019 The Blue Windows (String Quartet No.5), inspired by Marc Chagall’s stained-glass triptych America Windows of 1976. In the composer’s own words, ‘individual planes of harmony overlap, interlock, and blend into one another’. In many ways, this masterfully-paced work feels like a luminescent, mesmerising extension of late Beethoven (a strong influence on Reeves’s music), and its hypnotic beauty is infused with moments of intense dissonance and exquisitely-held single notes which are played with rapt beauty and expertly deployed spareness of tone ... Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now provides a gentle conclusion to a programme of fascinating colours and subtle intensity, vividly captured in Willards Barn, Godalming, by producer/engineer Paul Baxter. With detailed booklet notes by Anthony Friend, this Delphian disc is a welcome exploration of new and neglected repertoire that makes for compelling listening for all lovers of the string quartet genre"


"Solem Quartet have produced a thing of beauty with this presentation of music ‘awash with colour’ – most of which is recorded for the first time here ... [Edmund Finnis' String Quartet] catches your breath for all the right reasons ... The quartet could not have fulfilled the colour brief more seriously, or brought closer partnering, more sleek-edged rhythmic handling or sheer confidence. While its tender moments are heart-strings-pullingly good (listen to the delicately luxurious, smokey-toned serenity it brings to second violinist William Newell’s transcription of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now), it’s perhaps most exciting of all in its broad, rich-toned strength – for example, over Dutch composer Henriëtte Bosmans’s Debussy-esque String Quartet of 1927, which is is a knock-out for the sensual rhetorical freedom with which they articulate its expressionist passion. Add a ravishing guest appearance from Ayanna Winter-Johnson, singing the vocal part she recently added to Earth, her 2018 hymn of wonder to our planet, and yes, Painted Light is awash with colour, whilst also radiating modernity and soul"

read the full review here


"The Solem Quartet is at the top of its collective game throughout, as if the presentation of this music was propulsive force enough to light the music from within ...The Quartet is joined by the composer as vocalist in Ayanna Witter-Johnson's Earth, The piece is brilliantly written, and equally brilliantly performed. Distinctly soulful, it seems to link to the final item, Both Sides Now - the Joni Mitchell song heard in a string quartet arrangement by William Newell. The way the familiar melody emerges from the texture is simply lovely.Dephian keep on issuing significant discs, and their commitment to both new music and young talent is entirely laudable"


read the full review here


"This CD stopped me in my tracks ... The Solem Quartet has chosen an interesting concept for its first recording on the Delphian label, and in doing so, it has created a stunningly atmospheric disc. It is a mosaic of sound inspired by, and brimming with, colour ... The opening bars of Edmund Finnis Devotionsinsinuate the listener into a world where the music moves in space and immediately draws them into a feeling of timelessness. The music swirls around like a wintery colour emerging and then mingling with mist. The connection that the players create through different powerful emotions—tension, mysteriousness—takes hold, and with such expressive playing and wonderful tonal qualities, the sound of the Solem Quartet produces an eddy pulling the listener into its core with an impressionistic aural painting ... Lili Boulanger’s Noctourne is expressively performed, and still the delights keep appearing. Henriëtte Bosmans’ Quartet is equally hypnotising, with such sensitive and vivid playing from the Solem Quartet. Time seems to linger. The fragility and introspection of the second movement are palpable ... The meticulous attention to detail that the Solems bring to their performance is outstanding. The storytelling is exceptional and matched by superlative Delphian recording engineers ... The disc concludes with Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s Earth, originally part of a 2018 work for string quartet alone, commissioned by the Ligeti Quartet and Sound and Music. The Quartet is joined by the composer as vocalist; her voice is sonorous, and her words a powerful depiction of nature. Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, is heard in an arrangement by the Quartet’s violinist William Newell, and provides a delicate lesson in perspective"

"Perceptions of colour connect each of the works on the Solem Quartet’s new album. The musical styles range from Impressionism (Lili Boulanger) and neoclassicism (Henriëtte Bosmans) to the tonal contemplations of Edmund Finnis and Camden Reeves. Two encores complete a curious but not unengaging programme, one a song arranged instrumentally, the other an instrumental piece which turns out to be a song ... The opening and longest work is Finnis’s Third Quartet, Devotions (2022), cast in eight untitled movements running for a touch over 21 minutes. Do not be fooled by the music’s seeming inactivity, for the insubstantiality is a mirage, the inner workings, derived from the ‘Heiliger Dankegesang’ movement of Beethoven’s Op 132, masked by the instrumental textures’ quiet iridescence ...  Punctuating the programme are three briefer pieces, two of them in deft arrangements by the Solem Quartet’s second violinist, William Newell. Lili Boulanger’s delicate Nocturne (1911), originally for flute and piano, transfers well to quartet as does – surprisingly – Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both sides now’. Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s ecologically minded Earth (2018) – for which she provides the vocal element – adds a further dimension. The performances sound fairly definitive, and Delphian’s sound is excellent"

Release Date: 27 October 2023
Catalogue No: DCD34308
Total playing time: 57:39

Recorded on 1-3 February 2023 at Willards Barn, Godalming Producer/Engineer: Paul Baxter
24-bit digital editing: Jack Davis
24-bit digital mastering: Paul Baxter

Cover image © Peggy Cozzi
Design: John Christ
Booklet editor: John Fallas
Session photography: foxbrushfilms.com
Delphian Records Ltd – Edinburgh – UK www.delphianrecords.com


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Henriette Bosmans: Quartet- Allegro molto

Session Report: The Solem Quartet's recording of 20th-century and contemporary music

The Solem Quartet’s violist Stephen Upshaw talks to The Strad's Harry White about the themes of light, shade and perspective that link the works on the ensemble’s album of 20th-century and contemporary music


Solem Quartet record in Willard's Barn, Godalming image foxbrush.co.uk

Some albums are the result of an artist’s compulsion to record a particular work. Others begin conceptually, with an idea from which the repertoire is drawn. Regardless of the process, there is inevitably symbiosis between concept and repertoire.

In the case of Painted Light, the Solem Quartet’s first album with Delphian, the question of which came first is an interesting one. All under the somewhat nebulous themes of ‘colour, light and shade’, the album testifies to the group’s reputation for diverse programming. Recorded at Willards Farm in Dunsfold, Surrey, it is a potpourri of contemporary commissions, historic 20th-century repertoire, and Joni Mitchell’s seminal song Both Sides Now, arranged by the quartet’s violinist William Newell.

As we often do when starting a project, we began exchanging ideas about dream repertoire, and natural threads between the kinds of music began to emerge,’ explains violist Stephen Upshaw. ‘This sort of big-picture thinking often creates sparks that lead to a dynamic collective vision.’ So, as particular works were put forward, a concept developed that began to inform the rest of the album. ‘The concept strongly informed repertoire choices,’ explains Upshaw.

‘Edmund Finnis’s glowing String Quartet no.3 is the most recently composed work on the album [2022], and we were certain we wanted to include this. We also wanted another quartet, The Blue Windows by Camden Reeves, which was written for us in 2019 and has clear themes relating to colour and light.’ It was this choice that consolidated the album’s theme, leading to the inclusion of the impressionistic quartet by Henriëtte Bosmans (1927)

"a potpourri of contemporary commissions, historic 20th-century repertoire, and Joni Mitchell’s seminal song Both Sides Now"

and Lili Boulanger’s Nocturne (1911), in addition to the Mitchell and Ayanna Witter Johnson’s Earth (2018) – recorded here for the first time and on which the composer joins as vocalist – both of which Upshaw says deal with ‘light, shade and perspective' ...  c...dcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdcdCSDCSDCSDCS

Harry White

 This article originally appeared in October 2023 issue of The Strad Magazine


Lili Boulanger's stunning Nocturne, arranged by William Newell and performed during recording sessions in Godalming ...

Album Booklet

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