Boston Globe: Spektral Quartet at Goethe-Institut, finding music in shards

Things have already fallen apart at the outset of Beat Furrer’s String Quartet No. 3; the center has given way to a marginal babel: scrapes, scratches, plucks. On Sunday at the Goethe-Institut, the superb Chicago-based Spektral Quartet, making its Boston debut, took on Furrer’s challenge of reassembling such halting signals into coherence — while still, in its playing and programming, drawing out the equivocality of Furrer’s undertaking: striving toward communication, uncertain of the possibility.

Furrer’s quartet, written in 2004, fashions hesitant music out of sonic ash. It is bracing and pessimistic, a next-generation update of the fierce anti-Romanticism of 20th-century musical modernism, which sought to leave that opulence among the rubble of world war. (A Viennese new-music staple for decades, Furrer’s stringent eloquence has increasingly been turning up here; April brings a Boston University residency.)

The work’s one nod to the past — a quoted 16th-century chorale on Psalm 22 (with its famous opening: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) — remains fleeting, unresolved: the psalmist (and, one suspects, God) remain forsaken. There is persuasive musical energy, but no musical comfort; Furrer seems to interrogate the very idea. The ensemble (violinists Austin Wulliman and Clara Lyon, violist Doyle Armbrust, and cellist Russell Rolen) rendered each shard palpably vibrant, infusing the whole with a calm but intense focus, determined and fatalistic. Furrer’s unerring dramatic sense, invention, and discipline create a thrillingly bleak experience. He can make music out of anything; the Third Quartet remains pointedly agnostic as to whether that makes anything better.

Furrer’s catastrophes were a foil to a Spektral-commissioned work, Hans Thomalla’s “Bagatellen,” which turned extended-technique noisiness to more genial (or, at least, wry) ends. Thomalla, a German-born Chicagoan, works much of the same abraded vein that Furrer does; the white-noise static covering Furrer’s arid landscape here became a bewitching fog.

The nine miniatures of the “Bagatellen” each play off some unrecognizably innocuous sliver of the classical repertoire: a chord, a curl of melody, a trill. An exultant burst of pizzicato is superseded by its own percussive plunk; a descending scale chases its tail, sliding down like a snake from a tree. A poker-faced “Arioso” finale turns completely to air, the players bowing pins and pegs, bridges and bodies. The concert took contrasting tours of the haunted house of musical history: Thomalla tapping the walls, contacting friendly ghosts, Furrer opening every closet and finding nothing but skeletons.

By Matthew Guerrieri GLOBE CORRESPONDENT  MARCH 14, 2016