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Quartets by Evans, Glass, Antheil and Herrmann -
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'... wholly engaging ...'

American Classics: Four American Quartets. Glass, Herrmann, Antheil, Evans. Fine Arts Quartet. © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

A thoroughly winning CD. Should anyone be wondering 'who on earth is Ralph Evans?', he's been first violinist of the Fine Arts Quartet since 1982 and here his non-derivative, audience friendly Quartet No 1 in three movements (1995) prefaces the programme. In the accompanying notes, Evans recalls the work's piecemeal composition.

Listen -- Ralph Evans: Andante espressivo (String Quartet No 1)
(track 2, 1:56-3:13) © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

The Fine Arts Quartet, an internationally acclaimed ensemble, was founded (Chicago, 1946) by Leonard Sorkin and George Sopkin; it can consequently claim a history of recording and touring lasting over half a century.

The present personnel are still going strong and Naxos' typically generous 62.5 minutes of wholly engaging playing time reveals the ensemble in its element.

Prolific seventy-one-year-old Philip Glass, arguably America's best-known living composer, is represented by his compact second Quartet (Company), one of five dated 1966, 1983 (Company), 1985 (Mishima), 1990 (Buczac) and 1991, respectively. Its four movements totalling 8' 51" are unnamed; their titles simply I, II, III and IV.

The Glass quartets are available as a complete set with The Smith Quartet on Signum Classics (2008), distributed by harmonia mundi ... alternatively there's an earlier Kronos Quartet recording (Nonesuch, 1995), with the first (1966) quartet omitted. Now, budget constraints or otherwise, Naxos' up-to-the minute release is a clear first choice.

When Glass' first opera, Einstein on the Beach, was presented at The Met (1976), he became famous almost overnight; further full-scale operas, Satyagraha (1980), Akhnaten (1984), The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1988), The Voyage (1992), chamber operas and music theatre works followed.

In fact he has always been a musical style-setter. In the late 1960s, he spearheaded a new compositional form -- economical, shining in its clarity, and precisely focused; quite unlike anything audiences were hitherto accustomed to hearing.

The string quartets reveal Glass in intimate mode, and many of his devotees regard the fifth, his final quartet, as an especially commanding work: imbued with vitality and a distinctive aural spectrum.

Like a variety of other American musicians (in Paris), Glass studied with Nadia Boulanger (from 1963 until 1965) and upon returning from Europe in 1967, he embraced the new style eventually referred to as 'minimalism'.

Glass regarded the 'minimal' label as an invention of critics and referred to himself as a composer of 'music with repetitive structures'; a form constructed from the extended replication of brief, refined, melodic fragments threaded throughout his scores.

The first of the early pieces in this repetitive/minimalist idiom was the music for a production of Beckett's 1963 play Comédie in 1965 for two soprano saxophones; another was a string quartet (No 1, 1966).

Listen -- Philip Glass: 1st Movement (String Quartet No 2, Company)
(track 4, 1:56-2:35) © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

Quartet No 2 (Company) is both irresistible and potent, and while the brief work is entirely 'minimalistic', decisive, emergent melodies lend it immediate appeal. The piece began life as a score for Mabou Mines, an avant-garde theatre company founded in New York City in 1970, and named after the town of Mabou in Nova Scotia. The company counted Glass as 'unofficial' composer for almost three decades, and the quartet's name derives from Samuel Beckett's enigmatic play Company.

Admittedly I gritted my teeth and clung on for dear life as the Antheil was about to start, but a dozen bars into his 1948 quartet I wondered why I'd nursed such misgivings.

Listen -- George Antheil: Allegretto (String Quartet No 3)
(track 8, 0:00-1:20) © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

For his Third Quartet, Antheil crafted engaging, skew-whiff, whistle-worthy themes propelled by dynamic rhythm and distinguishing melodic singularities. At times the music is acutely deceptive with its tragic depths hidden while masquerading as easy charm.

Early in his career Antheil dubbed himself the 'bad boy of music' and the Parisian artistic community championed him as musical spokesman for their modernist ideas. However Antheil's publisher, G Schirmer Inc, described the music as 'characterized by sustained rhythmic vitality, harmonic pungency, and melodic vigor'.

Back home in the US, his Ballet mécanique for percussion ensemble overturned convention and, in a production complete with airplane propellers, created an uproar at its 1927 Carnegie Hall première.

In 1936, Antheil settled in Hollywood and began writing film scores. The last twenty years of his life would be a fertile period combining a heterogeneous harmonic language with thematic versatility, mosaic construction, and colorfully programmatic timbres.

Bernard Herrmann is best remembered as a film soundtrack writer; notably for the music accompanying many of Alfred Hitchcock's droll, suspenseful classics; though his first film was Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and his last Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976).

The String Quartet Echoes is regarded by some as one of Herrmann's most successful non-film works, its prevailing mood bleak and sorrowful. Typically however, the quartet presents no developmental surprises -- the ten disparate sections are titled: Prelude, Valse lente, Elegy, Scherzo, Nocturne, Habañera, Scherzo Macabre, Pastorale, Allegro and Epilogue. This is inward-looking music with a Freudian edge to it.

Listen -- Bernard Herrmann: Echoes for String Quartet
(track 12, 17:43-18:38) © 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

The quartet received its première on 2 December 1966 at London's Great Drawing Room in St James Square; the programme also included Edmund Rubbra's Third String Quartet. (Herrmann had long been one of Rubbra's great champions in America and England.)

One Herrmann biographer writes '... brooding, loud, dark, intense, oppressive, thoughtful and subject to sudden mood swings. This description might be seen to describe both the music and personality of one of the 20th century's greatest composers.'

Echoes went virtually unnoticed, but for a 1967 recording noted in Gramophone: 'The quartet repertory ... is surely badly in need of other pieces which are something other than fully serious large-scale works; here is such a piece, and it includes many passages of real beauty.'

The string quartet was performed as the ballet Ante Room in 1971.

Copyright © 22 July 2008 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand


American Classics: Four American Quartets

8.559354 DDD Stereo NEW RELEASE 62'27" 2008 Naxos Rights International Ltd

Fine Arts Quartet: Ralph Evans, violin; Efim Boico, violin; Yuri Gandelsman, viola; Wolfgang Laufer, cello

Ralph Evans (born 1953): String Quartet No 1 (1995) (Moderato; Andante espressivo; Allegro scherzando); Philip Glass (born 1937): String Quartet No 2 'Company' (1983) (crotchet=96; crotchet=160; crotchet=96; crotchet=160); George Antheil (1900-1959): String Quartet No 3 (1948) (Allegretto; Largo; Quasi presto (scherzo); Allegro giocoso); Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975): Echoes for String Quartet (1965)


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