- String Quartet No. 1 - Ralph Evans - Fine Arts Quartet
- String Quartet No.2 "Company" - Philip Glass - Fine Arts Quartet
- String Quartet No. 3, W. 142 - George Antheil - Fine Arts Quartet
- Echoes for string quartet - Fine Arts Quartet - Bernard Herrmann
Four American Quartetsby Fine Arts Quartet
Naxos' Four American Quartets features four later twentieth century American string quartets, dating from 1948-1995, as performed by the Fine Arts Quartet, the same Fine Arts Quartet that has been around since 1946 and resident at the University of Wisconsin. Naturally, the lineup has changed completely from the original group, though until the departure of violist Yuri Gandelsman in 2008 the membership of the Fine Arts Quartet had been relatively stable for a quarter century. Though replaced in the meantime by interim violist Chauncey Patterson, Gandelsman fills the viola chair here. The Fine Arts Quartet has been involved in a slew of recordings for Naxos, of which this release is only the second entry. However, as most of this activity is focused in more conventional, European fare such as Schumann and Mendelssohn, this disc of American works is particularly welcome; the original Fine Arts Quartet was renowned for its pioneering recordings of the earliest American chamber literature. There is certainly no law against string quartet members composing -- Claus Adam, one-time cellist of the Juilliard Quartet, wrote a superb "Cello Concerto" -- and it is of interest that Fine Arts first violinist Ralph Evans should lead off this collection with his own string quartet, begun in 1966 but not completed until 1995. By his own account, Evans was unimpressed with formalistic music current in 1966 and wanted to create something comparably rigorous, but non-confrontational and entertaining. Indeed, the result is whimsical and clever, and in relation to the Babbitts and Boulezes of that time, this quartet has a Flying Spaghetti Monster-ish aspect to it. It is the Darmstadt school turned on its head, containing no specific references to pre-existing music, yet Evans constructs fleeting figments of tonality in a formal design that is architectonic, rather than based on psychological form or other established strategies. Evans' quartet is both engaging and amusing and well deserves recording. Philip Glass' "String Quartet No. 2, Company," is relatively familiar company indeed, recorded by Kronos, the Smith Quartet, and in at least two arrangements. Compared to these other versions, Fine Arts' reading is leaner, less fluid, and more marked, and it is stimulating to hear this quartet played with a little more bite than is the norm. The admixture of folk forms and futurism in George Antheil's "String Quartet No. 3" is -- pardon the pun -- a heady one, and Fine Arts' recording represents a positive step toward establishing this excellent quartet to a well-deserved place in the main quartet literature. Bernard Herrmann's "Echoes for String Quartet" makes for a rather odd, and somewhat disquieting, match with the rest of the program. "Echoes" was an example of Herrmann making lemonade out of the lemons that life gives; at the time he was separated from his wife and deeply engaged in what turned out to the be the death throes of his professional relationship with Alfred Hitchcock. While this is a fine performance, it concludes the album on a down note; it might have been better placed in the middle or even at the start of the program. Nevertheless, it is nice to have Herrmann's work included in the context of other serious musicians as opposed to that of other film composers, or most commonly, his own context. Overall, Naxos' Four American Quartets is a refreshing and intriguing program that whets one's appetite for the remaining slate of Fine Arts Quartet releases.
- Release Date:
- Naxos American
Performance CreditsFine Arts Quartet Primary Artist
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" Four American Quartets" is what it says on the box, and four American quartets are indeed what we get. Aside from their being American, there's not much to tie these quartets together, which makes the disc somewhat unusual in the Naxos universe, where the main object seems to be to neatly fill holes in the catalogue. If anything, this disc is a showcase for the Fine Arts Quartet, founded over 60 years ago and with 3 of the current lineup having played together for a quarter century. You can easily picture the disc as a release from, say, Cedille Records, with a title like Echoes or Company and a relaxed shot of the quartet for the cover. But this is Naxos, and Naxos of course doesn't do artist-led. So the generic " Four American Quartets" it is, with a very dull cover to boot. Online, not so much of an issue, but I wonder how the album will catch the eye on a crowded store display. It deserves to do well, though. The first of the four comes from the Fine Arts' first violinist. It started life in the sixties as a couple of movements for violin and piano but took its final shape in 1995. It's a likeable piece, easy on the ears, with a first movement that alternates a sort of marching tune with a more lyrical idea, a passionate second movement, and a dancing finale. This is followed by the second of Philip Glass's five quartets. It's called Company because it's based on material from a Samuel Beckett stage production, and it comes from 1983, around the time of works such as the Koyaanisqatsi film music and the opera Akhnaten, so if you know those you'll know what to expect, although at less than 9 minutes the quartet is something of a miniature. I've really enjoyed the Smith Quartet's new set of all 5 quartets, but this is a fine performance too. George Antheil's third quartet was unexpected, at least in the sense that I'm not sure what to expect from Antheil: in this case, we're treated to plenty of folk-like tunes. Whether they're actual folk tunes the booklet notes don't say, but the overall impression is of a modernized Dvorak. The slow movement has some particularly lovely moments in it, and the rest of the work is high entertainment. Finally comes a 1965 piece by Bernard Herrmann, of course best known as a composer for films. It's in a single movement but with 10 named sections (Prelude, Valse lente, Elegy, and so on), and although it does remind me of scores such as Vertigo it doesn't come across as derivative. It's a somber work generally, with episodes of passion and drama, and brings the disc to a rather dark close. Overall, then, a disc of 4 rarities, all of them worth your time. Recent Fine Arts Quartet releases have included the likes of Schumann and Mendelssohn, but this is a valuable trip off the beaten path.