Benjamin Frankel's String Quartets are a big deal. Sadly known by few, these are some of the best quartets written during the 20th century, and indeed as a cycle I think they surely hold a candle among the very best and well-known quartet cycles of our time. I wish Frankel had written another dozen! I hope you all feel the same :)
I have zero time, so here's a review from Gramophone:
Benjamin Frankel’s string quartets are as impressive as his symphonies, which is saying a good deal. They are earlier, dating from a stage of his career when his success as a composer for films gave him little time to write large-scale concert pieces. With the exception of the Fifth Quartet they also predate his very personal (and by no means atonal) adaptation of serialism. But their beautifully spare, clean and economical textures seem to predict that development, just as their fertility of invention within a generally restricted time-scale (with a solitary exception there is no movement in the cycle that is longer than six minutes) points towards Frankel’s remarkable gift for symphonic concision.
Already in the First Quartet it is hard to believe that a movement as eventfully and absorbingly argued as the opening Andantino tranquillo lasts as little as 3'28'' or that the ensuing scherzo (which has more weight and boldness to it than most scherzos – other than Beethoven’s, whose presence is audible) is built from no more than a couple of pithy ideas. With the Second Quartet, bearing the very next opus number, Frankel’s tight, formal and thematic economy enables him to explore alternative formal plans: five movements now instead of four, with Bartok and Shostakovich joining Beethoven as reference points, with the first movement’s ‘development section’ appearing in stages or instalments and with an intense, radiant eloquence to the slow movement and finale, both audibly earned by precise control of formal structure.
There are further explorations in each subsequent quartet. The Third has two adjacent scherzos, the first nervous and Bartokian, the second a strange, disturbed dialogue between muted and plucked sonorities. In the Fourth the explorations are of mood, a quite unaggressive march and a charmingly gentle scherzo setting a deeply felt lament in poignant context, after which the delightful dancing simplicity of the finale has a subdued ache to it. But the Fifth Quartet is the finest here, and it is sad that it is the last, due to Frankel’s poor health and his subsequent concentration on the symphony. The fundamental lyricism of its predecessors is now even more distilled and refined, the process producing in the first movement two such simple but memorable ideas that for once their exploration needs nearly nine minutes. Or rather 22: euphonious and gratefully melodic though it is, this is Frankel’s first quasi-serial work, and not the least of its pleasures is working out (it is easy to do so, with the ear alone), how for example the serene lyrical Adagio at the centre of the work is derived from earlier material.
I wonder whether the Nomos Quartet knew these works before they were asked to record them. They sound delighted to have discovered them, eloquently concerned that their beauties and ingenuities should be apparent and grateful for their beautifully idiomatic quartet textures. The recordings are exemplary: clear, yet not uncomfortably close. Exceptionally but most valuably the accompanying booklet includes 14 pages of musical illustrations. A distinguished and important release.