About this Recording
8.559305 - PORTER, Q.: String Quartets Nos. 1-4
English 

Quincy Porter (1897-1966)
String Quartets Nos. 1-4

 

A native of Connecticut, (William) Quincy Porter was one of a diverse generation of American composers, Roger Sessions, Howard Hanson and Roy Harris among his immediate contemporaries, who played a significant rôle in shaping and directing American musical culture in the mid-twentieth century, only for their music to be neglected thereafter.

Born in New Haven on 7 February 1897, Porter learnt the violin from an early age. He studied at Yale University with Horatio Parker, who had taught Charles Ives a quarter-century before, and David Stanley Smith, graduating in 1919, then taking lessons with Vincent d'Indy in Paris. Returning to the United States in 1921, he worked with Ernest Bloch in New York and Cleveland, joining the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1923. A fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1928 made possible a three-year stay in Paris, during which time Porter laid the basis for the works of his maturity. In 1932 he was made professor of music at Vassar College, leaving some six years later to join the faculty of New England Conservatory, where he became director in 1942. In 1946 he returned to Yale as professor of music, which title he held until his retirement in 1965. He died in Bethany on 12 November 1966.

Stylistically Porter inclines to neo-classicism, rather than modernism or neo-romanticism, as the basis for his creative thinking; though his approach avoids the emulation of traits derived from Stravinsky or Hindemith that affected many American composers of his generation. Although his orchestral works attracted considerable attention in his lifetime (the Concerto Concertante for Two Pianos and Orchestra won a Pulitzer Prize in 1954, while the Viola Concerto was lauded by none other than William Primrose), his posthumous reputation rests more on his chamber output: specifically the series of nine string quartets that stretches across the greater part (1922-58) of his composing career.

This disc features the first four of these quartets, all of them written in less than a decade and evincing a resourceful response to the three-movement (fast-slow-fast) format. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Porter made extensive use of chromatic harmonies and sophisticated rhythms in an essentially melodic context, while his own skill as an executant musician (he studied violin alongside composition, and was viola player in the Cleveland-based De Ribaupierre Quartet during the 1920s) comes across in his idiomatic and inventive writing for strings.

The First String Quartet was written during 1922-3 and finds the young composer working through a densely chromatic style that, far from personal, is nonetheless distinctive and assured. It begins with a moderately paced movement, which opens in pensive melancholy before a rhythmic motion in the cello leads to a brief upsurge of activity. The initial music returns, developed at greater length and again culminating in a dynamic upsurge. The ensuing alternation has the function of a reprise, and a final return to the opening music has that of a coda. The Andante is a bitter-sweet threnody whose finely-wrought polyphony yet evinces elements of restlessness, at least until the ethereal close. The finale sets off with a coursing energy, though with a more ruminative theme as contrast, and a resourceful blend of sonata and rondo forms that carries the movement through to a coda whose seeming quiescence is denied by the brusque final pay-off.

The Second String Quartet was written in 1925 and suggests Bartók (whose Second Quartet was among the most frequently performed of 'contemporary' quartets) as a positive influence on Porter's own thinking. The opening movement begins with a striding, folk-inflected theme that fairly dominates proceedings and so accrues a fair degree of momentum over its purposeful course. The Adagio is similarly introspective but also more avowedly lyrical than the corresponding movement of the previous quartet, its chorale-like theme endowing the music with almost religious undertones. The closing pages rank as some of the most affecting quartet music written at this time. Its capricious theme expanded over syncopated pizzicato, the finale offers the necessary contrast, for all that its second theme has a yearning inwardness. The initial theme presently returns to develop its skittering gestures more fully, with only glimpses of the secondary theme permitted on the way to a lively and nonchalant ending.

The Third String Quartet was written in 1930 and, together with the Second Violin Sonata from the previous year, won the composer an award from the Society for the Publication of American Music. The opening Allegro begins with a strong, thrusting theme shared between all four instruments, with a lyrically more inward theme (again with a folk-like tinge) as contrast. At length, the initial momentum is re-established, its surging rhythmic activity eventually winding down to a recollection of the second theme that rounds off the movement in an unexpected repose. The Andante picks up on this quality accordingly, unfolding as an unbroken span of noble part-writing, and with some particularly eloquent writing for cello, before a regretful close. The finale immediately dispenses with this mood in music of great rhythmic incisiveness and harmonic piquancy, though making way for a theme of notably wistful elegance. These two are then ingeniously brought together as the movement builds to a forceful and decisive conclusion.

The Fourth String Quartet followed in 1931 and, despite chronological and also formal proximity to its predecessor, confirms Porter's stylistic maturity to an even greater degree. The first movement commences thoughtfully, even hesitantly, a quality that characterizes its overall course. The second theme now unfolds on first violin as an unbroken melodic span, though rhythmic aspects from the opening ensure an underlying impetus. The coda possesses a questioning finality: an ambivalence that the Lento takes up during its veiled and speculative discourse, with its haunting melodic lines (notably for first violin and viola) underpinned by a quietly pulsating rhythmic motion. Once again, the finale dispels the prevailing introspection with music of propulsive energy, though a soulful theme on solo cello creates the necessary 'breathing space' within a movement that, having regained its motivation, then presses onward to its affirmative closing chords.

Richard Whitehouse

 


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