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Penguin Guide, January 2009

The Second Quartet (written between 1911 and 1913) still draws on popular material, but used in densely polyphonic bursts so that the themes are fragmented and difficult to recognize, while the weird harmonies and moments of fierce dissonance in the argument become all but atonal in the finale. The Scherzo—not quite two minutes long—treats its popular material more recognizably with intense unpredictability. Superb performances here and fine recording: the disc is worth having for the student quartet; but only the aurally brave will venture to return to the later work very frequently.

American Record Guide, April 2007

"When the Concord Quartet disbanded in 1987, their violist, John Kochanowski, went on to join the Blair Quartet. With all his experience studying and performing these works, it's safe to assume that Kochanowski has had a strong influence on these [Ives] interpretations. Indeed, the family resemblance is unmistakable. The textural clarity, the balancing of the competing (with Ives, perhaps it would be more accurate to say "warring") melodic lines, the decision to end the first movement without vibrato in imitation of a church organ-all betray the influence of the Concord Quartet.... The Blair play and are recorded with admirable transparency. No instrument is ever obscured by the others. Also, they understand this music better than the Emerson Quartet, which rushes through these two quartets without giving each episode its own character. If you want a good CD of this music, this is the one to get."

James H. North
Fanfare, March 2007

The Blair gives Scherzo a nicely raucous aura, and its relaxed tempo allows the listener to revel in the piece’s riotous humor more than does the Emerson’s hell-for-leather approach. In the harmonically and programmatically complex Second Quartet, however, the Emerson pulls away from all other performances, supplying passion, warmth, anguish, and ferocity at an unprecedented level. The Blair’s “Arguments” (Ives’s title for the second movement) are quite civilized compared to the Emerson’s. © 2007 Fanfare Read complete review

Christopher Latham
Limelight, March 2007

The Blair Quartet play with real flair and great variation in the characterisation of the “schizoid” material but these quartets are not Ives’s greatest moments and the disc therefore is mainly of curiosity value.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, February 2007

This is an accomplished pairing of the Ives quartets, which also gives us the brief sliver of a Scherzo, all 1:42 of it and written in Ives’s challenging idiom. The Blair Quartet knows better than to garnish the early student work with timbral and syntactical complexities it doesn’t possess. Though a work that would clearly have displeased Ives’s teacher Horatio Parker it does valuable service for the lay listener in revealing Ives’s development in his very early twenties.

His command of harmonious balance is evident here and the subtle employment of his trademark hymn tunes – or perhaps deployment is a more apposite word – is to me at least thoroughly convincing. Of course one can advance the idea that Ives was not yet fully Ives but I suspect listeners coming to this music with a blank sheet will find much here to enjoy. The infiltrated and transformed hymnal tunes certainly reinforce the quartet’s original title From the Salvation Army. But the scherzo shows some Mendelssohnian fleetness of finger. Maybe a parallel with early Bridge is not entirely misplaced though the two composers are in other respects very different. But what is unmistakeable is the indebtedness of the young Ives to Dvorák, whose freshness and immediacy must have proved so attractive – and whose folkloric elements must have strongly appealed to Ives and his own use of demotic. The use of the hymnal material is accompanied by a lightly cyclical plan.

The Second Quartet is Ives in his early maturity, written between 1911 and 1913. The perplexing and sudden conjunctions, conflations, revelations, quotations and miasmic cuts are all firmly evident. But the somewhat tersely romanticised opening doesn’t quite prepare one for the fulminous writing to come – unceasingly powerful chromaticism. Here the quotations abound in tense, often hallucinatory rapidity – the hymnal, quotations from other composers (principally Beethoven and Brahms) as well as brief allusions to Marching through Georgia and the like. The means at his disposal are powerful – tremolandi and intense unisons included - and they culminate in the superb final movement which ends with a three-against-one finale in which the gaunt, relentless cello ostinato repeatedly challenges his companions.

The recording is a touch distant; the hall used doesn’t sound to have been especially warm though this is a relatively minor matter. The playing is involved and involving and conveys Ives’s journey from late Romanticism to modernism with conviction.

Tim Homfray
The Strad, January 2007

The Blair Quartet brings many good qualities to Ives's idiosyncratic quartets, not least the ability to bind their more bizarre aspects together with conviction. There is muscularity to this playing, emphasised by the clear, dry recording, which, aptly complements Ives at his most uncompromising. There is simplicity, too, in the more naive sections of the First Quartet, as well as charm in its Haydnesque moments and depth in the wider emotional landscape of the third movement Adagio. (This is the four-movement version of the work, with the original first movement reinstated.)

The Blair comes into its own in the abrasive world of the Second Quartet. Ives here calls for combat as much as harmony, figurative or otherwise, and the quartet responds with alacrity. The first movement, 'Discussions', is both vigorous and intense. To the work's second movement, 'Arguments', the players bring a splendid aggression, ounching out its motor rhythms and weaving its wiry polyphony into textures both full and luminous. The balance in the last movement goes slightly awry, possibly at the hands of the producer, as the cello thrusts its way out of the speakers beneath a violin twittering in what sounds like the next room. But this is a minor quibble about a first-rate performance. Ives's Scherzo, slotted between the two quartets, is performed with suitable crazed astringency.

Laurence Vittes
Audiophile Audition, January 2007

The Blair String Quartet, in an earlier (1987) line-up with a different cellist, elicited one of my favorite silly bits of music criticism (from The New York Times no less!): “The heavenly close of the third movement from Beethoven's Quartet No. 15 in A minor (Op. 132) seemed to stretch on for an eternity.” Yes, this was a complaint.

In residence at the Blair School of Music of Vanderbilt University (its members are violinists Christian Teal and Cornelia Heard, violist John Kochanowski and cellist Felix Wang), the Blair is one of those splendid quartets that labors in the cause of music in general and American music in particular and yet manages to fly under the radar screen of most of the music loving public.

The Quartet has championed music by contemporary American composers, including works written for them by Morton Subotnick, George Tsontakis, Ellsworth Milburn, Michael Alec Rose, Rodney Lister, and Michael Kurek. The ensemble has worked with Elliott Carter, Alan Hovhaness, John Harbison, George Rochberg, Ezra Laderman, Leon Kirchner, Steven Mackey, and Steven Stucky. The Quintet for Banjo and String Quartet, composed for the quartet by Edgar Meyer and Bela Fleck, has been featured nationally on the PBS series, Lonesome Pine Special, and remains in their touring repertoire.

The quartet has presented cycles of the complete quartets of Beethoven and Bartok. The group has appeared with many renowned artists including pianists Lee Luvisi, Rolf Gothoni (1993 Gilmore Artist), David Owen Norris (1991 Gilmore Artist), Christopher Taylor, Frederic Chiu, Enid Katahn, Craig Nies, Amy Dorfman; clarinetists James Campbell and David Krakauer; violinist Joseph Silverstein; violists Walter Trampler and Samuel Rhodes; cellist Norman Fischer; bassist Edgar Meyer; and virtuoso of the banjo, Bela Fleck.

The quartet has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Southern Arts Federation, the Tennessee Arts Commission and Chamber Music America’s C. Michael Paul Residency Program.

And yet they have only two recordings in the catalog! (The Emerson, bless their hearts, have more than 40.)

So, thanks to Naxos for presenting these involved, elegant and knowing performances of Charles Ives’ two magnificent and magnificently diverse quartets, the first of which is an accessible delight and the second a far less congenial piece, described by the composer as follows: “Four men--converse, discuss, argue--fight, shake hands, shut up--then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament.”

The good-ish sound, which could use some extra warmth and sense of space, has a homespun Ivesian sensibility to it. Excellent liner notes by Jim Lovensheimer. Normally, I would not complain about 50 minutes playing time on a CD being ungenerous, but in this case, I would have liked to hear more of the Blair even though they may have run out of Ives.

Kirk McElhearn
MusicWeb International, December 2006

Charles Ives’ two string quartets represent two sides of a musical coin. The first, “From the Salvation Army”, composed in 1896, while he was a sophomore at Yale, seems almost demure compared to much of Ives’ other music. Like his first symphony, which he later shrugged off as a work of youth, it is relatively accessible, featuring little dissonance, yet including quotes on a number of well-known hymns, something Ives would continue to do all his life; as well as the familiar opening motive from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony which Ives often used in his work. While the development and exposition of themes are not revolutionary, the music manages to remain just on the fence between romanticism and modernity.

The second quartet is another kettle of fish altogether. In three movements, “Discussions”, “Arguments”, and “The Call of the Mountain”, it opens with an eerie chromatic phrase that develops into a hymn-like motif, before decaying again into chromaticism. Here is Ives’ true musical form: challenging the listener at every step, provoking and surprising. While the first movement is somewhat sedate, the second music is harsh and dissonant, and merits the name “Arguments”. This relatively brief movement - less than 5 minutes compared to the framing movements’ duration of over ten minutes each - is concentrated and powerful, and the third movement returns to the tone of the first, with “a tranquility that suggests the arguing foursome have forgotten their differences as they contemplate the eternal from a spot in the mountains.” (From the liner notes by Jim Lovensheimer.) This reminds me of John Cage’s anecdote about something D. T. Suzuki said about studying Zen. "Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains." Dr. Suzuki was asked what the difference is between before and after. "No difference,” he replied, “only the feet are a little bit off the ground.”

Finally, this disc contains a brief scherzo for string quartet composed around 1907-1914. This raucous work features many quotes from musics of all kinds, and is typical of Ives’ music of this period, collaging hymns such as Bringing In the Sheaves, Stephen Foster songs and other popular music.

The performers attack this music with zeal and energy, and with exemplary balance between their instruments. However, the recording sounds odd, at once distant and reverberated, with not quite enough separation among the various instruments. The combination of the good balance and the lackluster sound gives the impression of a single group rather than the interplay of four instruments. Comparing this recording with that by the Emerson Quartet shows that the latter group has the upper hand by a landslide: not only is their performance tighter, but the sound is nearly ideal. On the Emerson recording, each instrument stands out, the stereo separation is perfect and the overall sound excellent. The Emerson’s performance, too, is a step up from that of the Blairs, though the vibrato used by the Emerson’s violinist detracts a bit from the intensity of the final movement of the Second Quartet. However, I find that the sound of the Emerson recording helps give the music a little more drama — especially, again, in the second quartet and the brilliant final section of the third movement.

Nonetheless, in spite of the sound, this is a fine recording, and its budget price means that it is an excellent introduction to Ives for those unfamiliar with his work. Ives fans will certainly want to snatch this up for another reading of these works that are not recorded often enough.

David Hurwitz, December 2006

It's always good to have new recordings of Ives' two quartets (here including a bonus of the zany Scherzo for String Quartet). They are wonderful works, the first tuneful and charming, the second one of Ives' finest mature pieces. In the Second quartet the Blair Quartet charts a middle course between the Emerson's sleek and swift version on DG and the much slower, heavier Leipzig Quartet reading on MDG. Their less-polished ensemble sonority, grainier than the competition but never in an unpleasant or inartistic way, suits the music well, whether in the plain-spun hymn tunes of the First quartet or the raucous eruptions of the Second.

Only in the latter work's transcendental closing bars might I have wished for a smoother, richer timbre, but there's no questioning the sensible pacing or the players' mastery of the idiom. The sonics are also flatteringly clear and coherent, allowing plenty of contrapuntal detail to register without picking up extraneous performance noises or the ensemble's own breathing--almost always a problem, it seems, with quartet productions. God only knows if the Emerson version is still available, and for all the enticing additional couplings (a bevy of short pieces), the Leipzigers' Wagnerian take on the Second Quartet may not be to all tastes (and the disc is extremely expensive). That makes this release a very welcome addition to the Ives discography.

Raymond S. Tuttle
International Record Review, December 2006

Ives's music appeals to those who admire rule-breakers. That's not to say that it all sounds the same. Together, his two string quartets give listeners a reasonably good idea about his range, as well as his recurring interests. The First was composed in 1896, when Ives was a sophomore at Yale and a pupil of the conservative Horatio Parker. The Quartet is subtitled From the Salvation Army or A Revival Service: the movements are 'Chorale', 'Prelude', 'Offertory' and 'Postlude'. Here, Ives quotes revival and gospel hymns he had known even since before he was a teenaged organist in Danbury, Connecticut. Parker thought hymn-tunes had no place in serious music, but Ives proved otherwise and personalized them by undercutting their metrical regularity. Nevertheless, this Quartet sits firmly in the late-Romantic camp, and will terrify few.

Not so the Second (1911-13), Ives's response to 'effeminate' (annotator Jim Lovensheimer's word) quartet performances. Apparently designating himself as a gender role cop, Ives set out to 'have some fun with making those men fiddlers get up and do something like men'. Ives's code-name for those who couldn't take their music like a man was 'Rollo'. In the tangled second movement ('Arguments'), the second violin is Rollo, playing saccharine, conciliatory cadenzas marked Andante emasculata. Here and elsewhere Ives makes intriguingly jumbled quodlibets from hymn-tunes, popular songs and excerpts from the classics. Some think Ives was a genius, and others think he was a crank, and I suppose there's support for both views in these quartets. The Scherzo (1 '42") is another Ivesian quodlibet, albeit not as savage. Among the tunes quoted is the one pertaining to how pants are not worn in the southern part of France.

As should be clear from the above, one easy way to kill Ives's quartets - particularly the Second - is to play them 'nicely'. I don't doubt that the Blair String Quartet can play with polish along with the best of them, but here they put on bib overalls and their most plain-spoken manner and dig right in. In contrast, the Lydians are a little too apologetic. The Blairs also take more time in the final movement ('The Call of the Mountains') of the Second, thereby emphasizing its eccentric yet visionary qualities. The Lydians miss this movement's 'crazy old guy ranting in front of the courthouse' feeling. Naxos's edgier, clearer recording also helps to get Ives's point across more keenly.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, November 2006

Charles Ives is recognised as a father to just about every category of modern American music, but you wouldn’t guess it from his String Quartet No.1. The work’s original subtitle, ‘From the Salvation Army’ sums up the musical source for much of the material in the piece. Composed in Ives’ sophomore year at Yale, the composer used revival and gospel hymns such as Beulah Land and ‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus’, paraphrasing them in order to break up their four-square melodic structures. While it is easy to dismiss this as a youthful folly, analysis shows highly technical treatment of this superficially negligible material, introducing it (among other things) to cyclic form – the using and trans-formatting of similar material throughout the piece to create thematic unity. The fugue which forms the first movement had its origins as an organ fugue composed at Yale, and it crops up yet again in the third movement of the Fourth Symphony – recycling a go-go!

The programme on this CD has a brief intermezzo in the shape of Ives’ Scherzo, which also quotes from hymns such as ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ and ‘Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground.’ Another piece of wild whimsy, there are Ivesean fingerprints such as canonic treatment of themes and the occasional musical joke, and ending in a ‘raucous’ dissonant final chord.

String Quartet No.2 brings us into far more complex realms, many of the quotations being clipped and condensed, rendering them as good as unrecognisable. Theme-spotters can have fun seeking out moments from Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, as well as the occasional folksy tune, but the inner intensity of the work renders the eclectic nature of Ives’ ear secondary to the fascinating sense of flow and exploration which is in constant flux. The final movement, ‘The Call of the Mountains’ opens with searching and atmospheric, atonal chords and passages, and ends with a jaw-dropping section with block-like, almost aleatoric notes over a descending ostinato scale in the cello.

It has been pointed out that Ives’ music lives very much on the edge, constantly running the risk of sounding amateurish and just plain awful unless the commitment of the players is absolute. This is particularly true of the 1st Quartet, and if Ives had not gone on to create the work he did this would be one oddity no doubt long forgotten. One thing I can guarantee you about this recording is that there is no question as to the passion and genuine feel the Blair Quartet put into this music. They are entirely convincing and very well recorded, making this a valuable addition to the catalogue. The only alternative I could find is the Lydian Quartet on the Centaur label, the Emerson Quartet on DG apparently having been dropped from the listings. With the timing at only just over 50 minutes we might have hoped for another wee filler, but in any case we have the inevitable bargain bonus of Naxos pricing, so collectors really need look no further.

Edward Ortiz
Sacramento Bee, November 2006

The first and second quartets of Charles Ives are quite possibly the quintessential American quartets of the early 20th century. These are expansive and highly original works that draw from and evoke a hopeful and bold musical Americana.

On this CD, the Blair String Quartet tackles the quartets with vigor, imparting a dark tone here, a light flourish there, and they do it with intelligence and a genuine love for the music. This may not be the definitive recording of Ives' quartets, but it is highly noteworthy, nonetheless.

The two quartets paired here offer a study in contrasts. The first draws its inspiration from the lively pastiche of revival and gospel hymns dear to Ives' heart. The work begins with a brilliant fugue originally written for organ, and later movements develop into a work that freely paraphrases from hymns, including "Beulah Land" and "Stand up, stand up for Jesus."

The real treat on this CD is the second quartet, a more virile, complex and confrontational quartet than the first. The second also references hymns and spirituals, but it does so as a subtext to a bold and larger compositional development.

The Blair String Quartet sounds tight and earthy in this recording. These four musicians are not afraid of going to the opposite ends of the dynamic spectrum with their playing.

These days, Ives' music is not often recorded, so this is a very timely CD release.

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, November 2006

Is there any composer anywhere in more paradoxical need of lucid, assertive and full-bodied performance than Charles Ives, the great American conjuror of chaos? Probably not. And that's what is so wonderful about this disc. No one constructed a sound world so gloriously evocative of the American world outside the concert hall. Nor did any major composer - not even Mussorgsky - routinely leave his greatest works in such disarrayed manuscript and in such need of an editor. And all that is why Ives performers have to be preternaturally clear about what they're doing. You'd have to listen far and wide to find Ives performances as strong, coherent, well-played and well-recorded as the Blair Quartet's in this recording of Ives' two string quartets. The second from 1911-13, especially, can, in bad performance, seem like an unholy mess of whiny incompetence, rather than the neo-revolutionary overthrow of standard string quartet "effeminacy" for a New World of string quartet performance. Truly exemplary Ives., October 2006

Ives wrote his First Quartet when he was a mere 22 and it provides an early example of his unorthodox creative style and his generous borrowing of revival and gospel hymns as musical sources. The much more complex Second String Quartet was written over a long period–between 1907-1913–and reflects his contempt for the polite drawing room chamber music of a genteel age. Ives himself summarised the work’s program as: ‘four men – who converse, discuss, argue … fight, shake hands, shut up – then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament’. No girly-man, Charlie. Vanderbilt University’s Blair String Quartet play up a storm.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group