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Posted October 1, 2010
" 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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.