A new British CD
of American string quartets -
reviewed by PETER DICKINSON
'... this performance is superb advocacy.'
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.
Copyright © 18 August 2002
Peter Dickinson, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, UK