About this Recording
8.559354 - EVANS, R.: String Quartet No. 1 / GLASS, P.: String Quartet No. 2 / ANTHEIL, G.: String Quartet No. 3 / HERRMANN, B.: Echoes
English 

Four American Quartets 

Ralph Evans (b.1953), String Quartet No. 1
Philip Glass (b. 1937), String Quartet No. 2, ‘Company’ 
George Antheil (1900-1959),
String Quartet No. 3 
Bernard Herrmann (1911-75), Echoes for String Quartet

 

The string quartet was much practised in the United States throughout the twentieth century, composers representative of the broadest range of aesthetics all having worked within the medium. The present disc gathers four quartets by composers who are widely divergent in style and manner, and who, though they may not be synonymous with the genre, have made a distinctive and also personal contribution to the endlessly re-inventive format comprising two violins, viola and cello.

Ralph Evans, the Fine Arts Quartet’s leader, is more familiar as a performer than composer. Finally completed in 1995, his First String Quartet had a protracted and unusual genesis, as the composer himself recounts below:

“Some of the greatest composers, Mozart among them, are famous for having written masterpieces in just a few days. By contrast, it took me 29 years to complete my First String Quartet. To be fair, it did not really take me that long; I wrote most of it in 1966-8, then essentially neglected it until 1995, the year I finally got around to its completion.

“By the age of thirteen I had written quite a few short pieces, but since I planned to enter America’s National Federation of Music Clubs’ 1967 National Composition Competition, I was hoping to compose a concise three-movement work, one which was modernistic yet distinct from the academic serialists then in vogue. Already a veteran concert-goer, it seemed to me contemporary composers were writing music that sounded like dry exercises, devoid of an aesthetic sensibility. Thus I challenged myself: could I, a novice composer, write in a non-derivative style, with tuneful melodies, lively counterpoint and piquant harmonies, to create work of analytical interest that people might enjoy hearing?

“As the competition deadline loomed, however, I realised I was in over my head. I had melodies and ideas galore, but could not decide which instrumentation would be best for them. Might it be more effective to score my work for full orchestra, for violin and piano, or for chamber ensemble? I experimented with different versions, but finally settled on violin and piano for a practical reason: I would then have the possibility of playing the piece in my violin recitals. But I had another pressing problem: although I had completed a slow movement, and made good progress on a final movement, I only had sketches to show for the planned first movement. Unwilling to wait another year, I entered the completed movement in 1967 as an independent piece, with the idea of entering the other movements, one at a time, in consecutive years. As it turned out, the slow movement (now the second) won First Prize in the 1967 Competition, and the fast movement (now the last) won First Prize in the 1968 Competition. But the planned first movement was to remain unfinished as my focus shifted full-time to the violin.

“Although back in 1966, a scoring for string quartet was one idea I had considered, it was not until 1995 that I could resist the idea no longer. Perhaps years of performing in the Fine Arts Quartet had given me the confidence to finish the missing first movement and also to arrange the other two movements for quartet, based on the ideas and sketches I had been contemplating ever since 1966, thus completing and revising a miniature quartet almost three decades in the making”.

As to individual movements, the Moderato opens with a rhythmically robust idea, complemented by a more expressive melody. There is an animated development, before the largely straightforward reprise and a sizable coda that places elements from both main themes in an arresting new light. The Andante espressivo begins with a sustained outpouring of emotion that presently makes way for a more restrained but still intensely felt idea, the two then alternated and varied on the way to a calm coda. The Allegro scherzando combines scherzo and finale in a dancing music juxtaposed with a more soulful theme, the initial idea returning to round off the work with its spirited humour.

Although not thought of as a composer of string quartets, Philip Glass has completed eight of them. The first three were student works, long discarded, while the First Quartet (1966) appeared shortly after his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and was not heard in public until 1986. Three years earlier, Glass had returned to the genre, his Second Quartet deriving from a theatrical presentation of Samuel Beckett’s prose poem Company, now the subtitle for a work whose four short movements evince a high degree of motivic unity.

The first movement unfolds as a complex of yearning phrases for each instrument that also interlock into a highly cohesive whole. The second movement is a livelier, scherzo-like piece that features much rhythmic syncopation, while the third movement is more sharply defined in its expressive contours. The fourth movement’s strongly imitative discourse helps to bring about the work’s determined conclusion.

The self-styled ‘bad boy of American music’, George Antheil wrote three string quartets which between them give a good idea of how his thinking evolved. The First Quartet (1924) is a compact and angular piece that finds the then modernist composer bringing together elements of jazz and folk, while the Second Quartet (1927) is a fluent study in the neo-Classicism exemplified by Stravinsky and Hindemith. The Third Quartet (1948) is a larger work whose melodic writing is permeated by a folk-music ambience: Dvořák may well come to mind, though Antheil was probably influenced in this respect by the more recent work of Virgil Thomson and Henry Cowell in creating music that sounds indigenous yet at the same time impersonal.

The Allegretto begins with a folksy theme whose pithy constituents inform the movement as a whole. There is an agile development of these various motifs, which passes straight into a heightened reprise and a no-nonsense coda. The Largo inhabits a songful and intensely nostalgic domain, its melodic material having a keen rhythmic profile and building to a sustained climax towards the centre. The scherzo is marked Quasi presto, which aptly indicates its lithe and deftly ironic manner. The Allegro giocoso that rounds off the work again features themes with a likely folk derivation, and is underpinned by a rhythmic momentum that maintains its purposeful course through to the close.

Remembered today for a sequence of film scores ranging from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1975), Bernard Herrmann was also initially active as a composer of ‘classical’ music, including a Symphony and the full-length opera Wuthering Heights. When, however, he composed his String Quartet (1965), he had not released a concert work for 25 years: this renewal, however, quickly led to a Clarinet Quintet and other projects during Herrmann’s final decade. The subtitle, Echoes, is an oblique indication of the work’s origin as a ballet (and it was indeed given by the Royal Ballet in 1971), though it equally applies to the thematic connections unobtrusively linking the ten sections of this one-movement piece.

The Prelude sets the work in motion with a searching sombreness that opens out in the limpid Valse lente. The mood so far established intensifies in a keenly felt Elegy, before a Scherzo that draws the main motifs into a spirited though still muted discourse. This makes way for a Nocturne whose air of pervasive melancholy is heightened by the haunting Habanera that follows. This, in turn, is offset by a Scherzo macabre of spectral character, then by the Pastorale that restores a ruminative calm. A propulsive Allegro seems intent on bringing about a more demonstrative ending, but this is soon provided by the Epilogue that brings the work full circle to an elegiac repose.

Richard Whitehouse


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