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A new British CD
of American string quartets -

'... this performance is superb advocacy.'

Variations - Kreutzer Quartet. © 2000 Metier Sound and Vision

The starting point of this CD is the admirable enthusiasm of Peter Sheppard Skærved, leader of the Kreutzer Quartet. His notes in the CD booklet set the scene as he sees it: 'This disc might be seen as ways of dealing with our musical past. However, at the root of much "serious" musical thinking, there is a prejudiced notion of aesthetics at work ... Both the composers on this disc have fallen foul of these assessments at one time or another.'

Elliott Schwartz himself says: 'The time is ripe for an unprecedented outpouring of post-modernist, collage-orientated polystylistic music' and he goes on to give reasons. These include the availability of recordings of music of all possible types, cultures and periods; the habit listeners now have of frequently hearing music in disconnected chunks through channel switching and search buttons; and the influence of composers such as Ives, Berio, Stockhausen and Schnittke and, in more recent American music, Rochberg, Foss and Bolcom.

Rochberg refers to the impact of his polystylistic works such as the Third Quartet (1973): 'Throughout I've managed to give modernism and modernists a real hard time, especially ... erasing all walls and borders based on historicity and aesthetic purities -- declaring an all-at-once world in which all that matters is craftsmanship of the ancient kind, taste of the kind Mozart and Haydn possessed, judgement of the kind Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók applied to every major decision they made.'

This is a tall order but the music will have to stand on its own feet. I remember the impact of Rochberg's Third Quartet in the LP released on Nonesuch in the year it was written. These were the great days of Teresa Sterne's enterprising catalogue and the first recording of the Rochberg, with the Concord Quartet for whom it was written, is still available on CD. At the time, the large sections of imitation Beethoven and Mahler were perplexing. Why plagiarise when we have the sublime originals? Then, later on, Schnittke came along using the same kind of technique with great Russian intensity and gained wider acceptance. I invented the term style-modulation to deal with this situation, since the composer's personality is defined by the way in which he moves from one frame of reference to another. Ives did this inimitably. In the 1970s Boulez, who conducted Ives, talked about the passages of bad taste in his music but now we know better since the very barriers that Peter Sheppard Skærved complains about have come down. Or, at least, the bad taste has become so ubiquitous and so powerful that it can no longer be ignored -- look at the review pages of the newspapers.

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Copyright © 18 August 2002 Peter Dickinson, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, UK


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