American string quartets, lost and found
The string quartet has occupied a strange place in the American musical landscape. While it was the medium of choice for the deepest and most profound thoughts of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Shostakovich, it has served more as a one-off venture for many American composers. Samuel Barber’s single work in the genre, produced the Adagio for Strings, a mainstay of the concert hall. Elliott Carter’s five quartets are more respected than loved but receive regular performances. There have been a handful of modern masterworks in the genre by John Corigliano and Aaron Jay Kernis and other quartets that deserve to be revived by Walter Piston, George Rochberg, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and, especially, David Diamond.
It took Ralph Evans, first violinist of the Fine Arts Quartet, more than three decades to complete his String Quartet No. 1 (ambitiously numbered, considering the long gestation). The opening Moderato has an easy-going Delius-like English feel, turning more angular in the middle, though an overall amiability reigns. The Andante is an impassioned chromatic outpouring and the third movement offers a lightweight gamboling scherzo. Even with the emphatic closing chord, Evans’ quartet seems to need another movement, a finale with some ballast.
Philip Glass has completed five mature quartets, as well as his atmospheric quartet soundtrack for Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. The concise String Quartet No. 2 is adapted from music for a stage version of Beckett’s Company and the four movements run less than nine minutes with a characteristic mix of yearning lyric phrases against pulsing minimalist rhythms.
Most substantial are the other two works. George Antheil’s String Quartet No. 3, written in 1948, dates from the composer’s conservative late years when he had put aside the anarchic outrages of his “bad boy of music” youth. Still, it’s hard to believe this retro-conservative work came from the same pen that produced Ballet mecanique. There’s a strong flavor of 19th-century American folksong in the opening Allegretto, which grows more tense and agitated. The ensuing Largo offers a gently rocking melody, naïve and rustic in its Dvorak-in-America nostalgia. A more pointed scherzo leads to a fast-paced finale that retains the cheerful folk elements even with an edgy driving counterpoint.
Vigorous and committed playing by the Fine Arts Quartet, though the forwardly balanced recording is on the loud side. It would be wonderful if Naxos could find their way to adding new performance of other neglected American works into the American Classics series, not least David Diamond’s ten string quartets, a significant body of work inexplicably ignored. For now, the present disc offers an offbeat program and a real discovery with Bernard Herrmann’s Echoes.
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Thu Sep 11, 2008
at 9:16 pm