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Robert R. Reilly, January 2010

…the exciting Naxos release of Benjamin Lees’s String Quartets, than I encountered Dan Welcher’s String Quartets Nos. 1–3, also on a new Naxos CD (8.559384), beautifully performed by the Cassatt String Quartet. These superb works reinforce my conviction that chamber music is thriving in the United States. Ken Fuchs, Daniel Godfrey, Jonathan Leshnoff, Steven Gerber, Paul Moravec, George Tsontakis, and Jennifer Higdon are other composers who immediately spring to mind, along with Lees and Welcher.

Welcher’s Third Quartet, subtitled “Cassatt,” was written for the eponymous quartet and inspired by Mary Cassatt’s paintings. This music has a most welcome sense of playfulness, as in its references to Ravel and Falla in the first movement and in its treatment of the melody of the “Soldier’s Chorus” from Gounod’s Faustin the second. The meltingly lovely third movement, according to the composer, “is all about melody…there is no angst, no choppy rhythms, just ever-unfolding melody and lush harmonies.” It quotes from Debussy and, like Cassatt’s paintings, is imbued with a French spirit. All three Welcher quartets are extremely well-crafted. The Second, “Harbor Music,” shares in the impressionistic perspective of the Third. The First is cut from a different cloth; it is more angular and acerbic but never, even in its angry moments, off-putting.

Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, January 2010

 Dan Welcher (b 1948) weighs in with these three fine quartets written over the last 30 years.

Quartet 1 (1987), written for the Cleveland Quartet, has the up-and-coming 31-year-old composer experimenting with some post-serial structuralism, which makes for good program notes, but the good news is that the piece is a fully confident, absorbing, thoroughly musical work in four cleanly wrought, eventually cyclical movements. Technical niceties notwithstanding (and there are lots of them), the piece is filled with exciting virtuosic action, soaring melody, and a committed sense of tonality. This is one of the more impressive pieces of chamber music written in America in the late 80s, and it deserves to be heard and played more regularly. Maybe this well played release will help.

Quartet 2 (1992) (Harbor Music) was previously recorded on Gasparo 314 (J/A 1999) with the Cavani Quartet on a mixed vocal and chamber music Welcher program. The Cassatts are a bit more refined than the Cavanis, so you won’t go wrong with this budget release if you are looking for this lovely, lyrical piece, which recounts the composer’s trip to Sydney, Australia in mild, Vaughan Williams-neoclassic Stravinskyish mode.

Quartet 3 (2007), written for the Cassatts, is a set of three pieces on Mary Cassatt’s paintings. ‘The Bacchante’ depicts a woman of Spanish persuasion; after an expressive introduction, the music begins dancing like Spanish Ravel. ‘At the Opera’ is a dreamlike Ivesian fantasy on excerpts from Gounod’s Faust. To its credit, the movement is far more than a mere pastiche, and contains some of the most expressive music here—a somewhat surprising condition for this sort of piece. Finally, ‘Young Woman in Green, Outdoors in the Sun’ sandwiches Debussy’s ‘Green’ between two deeply expressive passages effectively recounting Cassatt’s sensitive portrait.

This is an outstanding release of first rate chamber music, exquisitely played. Don’t miss it.

Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News, December 2009

Dan Welcher, who’s been on the music faculty of the University of Texas since 1978, proves that new music doesn’t have to be scary or off-putting. In fact, his Third String Quartet, Cassatt, premiered just last year, has a gracious fluency that suggests a continuity with string quartets by Fauré and Ravel.

That musical language is apt to a triptych inspired by paintings by the American impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. The second movement’s violin-and-cello duet is hauntingly lovely.

At the other end of Welcher’s stylistic spectrum, the 1987 First Quartet is a bit pricklier, but will feel quite congenial to anyone at home with the quartets of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. The Second Quartet, Harbor Music, is a musical homage to Sydney, Australia.

Vividly recorded, these performances are skilled and sympathetic…

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, September 2009

Three years ago we lauded the Manhattan-based Cassatt String Quartet and this exceptional release gives us cause to do so again! Named after American impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), this ensemble has been instrumental in promoting some of the finest chamber music being written today. The three string quartets of American composer Dan Welcher (b. 1948) featured on this CD most assuredly fit into that category.

The program starts with his third composed in 2007–08 subtitled “Cassatt.” Dedicated to our performers here, its three movements were inspired by an early, middle and late period painting of the artist. All are connected by a common key schema derived from her name, and begin with a variant of what the composer calls “Mary’s Theme.” After a melancholy introduction the “early period” movement, “The Bacchante” (1876), becomes agitated, and in the spirit of the painting takes on a Latin temperament similar to that frequently found in the music of Ravel (1875–1937) and Falla (1876–1946)

The “middle period” movement, “At the Opera” (1878), begins in twitchy fashion, and may remind some of the first movement from Shostakovich’s (1906–1975) fifteenth symphony (1971). But not for long as the tune for “The Soldier’s Chorus” from Gounod’s (1818–1893) Faust (1859) enters on little cat feet, introducing a meditative central episode. More quotes from Faust follow, and then a brief hyperactive outburst, after which the movement ends uneventfully.

The concluding “late period” selection, “Young Woman in Green, Outdoors in the Sun” (1909), is the most romantic part of the work. Melodically as well as harmonically lush, it’s based on three themes, which according to the composer represent the “Young Woman,” “Green” and “Sunlight.” They’re first stated in a straightforward manner, and then in a more impressionistic setting. There are also references to Debussy’s (1862–1918) song “Green” from his Ariettes Oubliées (1903). Be sure to read the composer’s album notes for a better understanding of this quartet.

The single movement second quartet dates from 1992 and is subtitled “Harbor Music.” The idea for it came to the composer after he visited Sydney, Australia, which encircles one of the world’s busiest harbors. A fetching ocean motion piece characterizing the goings and comings of all those ferry boats in Sydney Harbor, it’s bitonally spiced and somewhat neoclassical in spirit. Welcher describes it as a “loose rondo” in his informative notes, where you’ll find more particulars.

Completed in 1988, the first quartet is in four movements and might best be described as a series of moodscapes. The opening movement easily lives up to its subtitle “Harsh, angry” with the cello defending itself against entomological attacks from the violins and viola. The next part, “Lonely,” builds to an anguished climax followed by mournful passages that end things despairingly. A diabolical scherzo is next, giving all four performers a chance to strut their stuff. There’s a Paradise Lost sense of abandonment about the opening of the finale, but rays of hope begin to break through in the animated passages that follow. References to previous themes are then tossed about in a contrapuntal blender, and the quartet ends with a triumphantly defiant coda.

These knotty, moody scores are full of special string effects that make considerable technical as well as interpretive demands on any who would perform them. The Cassatt Quartet meets these challenges head-on! Their impeccable intonation as well as attention to detail and dynamics are only surpassed by what must be an inherent gut feeling for this music.

Although a year separates the recordings of the first two quartets (2007) and the third (2008), producer-engineer Judith Sherman gives us consistently excellent sonics. With a soundstage that’s somewhat forward and in the articulate acoustic of New York City’s American Academy of Arts and Letters, it seems she opted for clarity and focus rather than expansiveness. Considering the complexity of these scores, that was a wise choice, particularly since the string tone remains totally convincing despite any closeness. Audiophiles as well as late-romantic/early-modern chamber music enthusiasts will find this disc worth having.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2009

Dan Welcher was almost forty before he began work on his first quartet, but, as this disc shows, his slender output in the genre is among the finest from a 20th century American composer. Those who run away as soon as they read about ‘tone-rows’ should forget Welcher ever mentioned them, his First Quartet easily accessible to anyone who would like to travel down the road set out by Bartok. It is a descriptive piece in four highly contrasting movements, the second, ‘Lonely’, surrounded by proactive music, though the meaning of ‘Solemn’ for the dramatic finale rather eludes me. The score was dated 1987 and it was a further five years before the Second emerged, this time quite short and in one movement. Given its official name ‘Harbor Music’, it takes as its inspiration the view from the city of Sydney, where boats shuttle people across the harbour. Again don’t be put off by the composer’s analysis, it still will not tax anyone who enjoys music prior to the 1940’s. But by far the most impressive is the Third with the title ‘Cassatt’, referring to the American Impressionist painter, Mary Cassatt, who worked in Paris from the last quarter of the 19th century. If Welcher uses the letters of her name as a recurring theme, that it is by the way, as this is music you want to hear again the moment it has finished. In style it moves back in time, though the quotes from Gounod’s Faust is just a little too obvious. It was composed for the Cassatt String Quartet, an all-female group based in Manhattan. They are obviously deeply committed to Welcher’s style, the amount of inner detail revealed being most impressive. Very good sound quality.

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