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Andrew Farach-Colton
Gramophone, October 2016

The specialist’s guide to… American string quartets

…one finds a joyful, playful spirit that is intent on engaging the ear. The New York-based Harlem Quartet are polished, persuasive advocates. © 2016 Gramophone

James A. Altena
Fanfare, May 2011

This is a most welcome new entry to the Naxos “American Classics” series…All three quartets have a virtually identical layout of three movements, with outer Allegros bookending a central Adagio (or Lento in the case of the Third). The First Quartet from 1933, written in the composer’s early style before he found his neoclassical voice, is astringent and dissonant. The first movement opens with an aggressive, percussive motif that alternates with a sinuously weaving countersubject. This is followed by a subdued Adagio with muted strings and concludes with an energetic, dance-like finale reminiscent of Copland but considerably more spiky. The Third Quartet from 1947 reflects Piston’s fully mature style; some astringency is still present, but it is considerably tempered. The opening movement has a first subject similar to that of the first quartet, but the second subject is more hesitant, as if unsure where to go and stopping to ask for directions. A quiet, introspective slow movement is followed by a closing Allegro that closely follows the sonata form of the opening movement in thematic content. The Fifth Quartet from 1962 exemplifies Piston’s later compositional phase, when he began to experiment with 12-tone techniques. Despite that, the opening movement is in some ways the most lyrical of those presented here, though still displaying a trademark restless energy. The ruminative Adagio is followed by a dancing rondo finale with fugal elements, again reminiscent in mood of the First Quartet.

All four members of the Harlem Quartet are first-place laureates of the Sphinx Competition, which seeks to promote the careers of black and Latino string players. They are already an accomplished ensemble, and their performances here easily outclass those of the Portland group both technically and interpretively. The recorded sound is clear and not too closely miked. My one complaint is the inexcusably short timing of this disc, at 49:43; surely at least one more quartet could have been added. Still, let’s hope that a second disc will follow to complete the set; bravo to Naxos for choosing this group and advancing this project.

Stephen Estep
American Record Guide, March 2011

The Harlem Quartet, made up of first-place laureates of the Sphinx Competition, has done so well with this release that I hope they record the other two quartets. These are four of the most natural musicians I’ve ever heard—I will never get tired of good musicians playing lesser-known pieces at this level of quality. The sonics are spacious and clear, and the quartet perfectly balanced. Well-written liner notes in English.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Robert R. Reilly, January 2011

from the “classic” era of American music comes the Naxos release of String Quartets Nos. 1, 3, and 5 of Walter Piston (1894–1976). Piston did not bother much with surface appeal but sought a quality of interiority, which he achieved in these subtle quartets. The Harlem Quartet captures this inner life perfectly.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, December 2010

It’s difficult to get excited about Walter Piston, or so I thought. I have had for some time a recording of his 4th Symphony on Delos (now transferred to Naxos 8.559162) which I really like but perhaps it’s the fact that like many music students I was expected to ‘take on board’ Piston’s three hefty tomes ‘Harmony’ of 1941, Counterpoint of 1947 and his famous if rather dry book on Orchestration of 1955. So I came to these quartets with a little circumspection. That said, I was immediately won over.

The String Quartet No. 1 is in the composer’s favourite three movement format. The first is an athletic Allegro in sonata-form with well contrasted subjects. The second is the longest movement with a most beautiful atmosphere which rises quite logically into a brief fugal passage. The third movement, which moves between regular and irregular quaver patterns, is a (too) brief Allegro Vivace. This is the longest of the three works here but never outstays its welcome and the Harlem Quartet brings out all of its qualities brilliantly.

As to Piston’s 3rd String Quartet Richard Whitehouse in his useful booklet notes asserts that Bartók is “undoubtedly present”. I was also reminded of Michal Tippett, perhaps the 2nd Quartet. There is a sonata-form first movement which despite its at times somewhat ambiguous tonality, contrives, not all that successfully, to land on a minor chord ending. The third movement, also in a (looser) sonata-form structure, does the same but with more satisfaction. The middle movement begins with the cello’s open strings and there are some effective harmonics. It is a lonely landscape painted with almost classical line and counterpoint. On the whole the work did not seem to me as interesting as the 1st Quartet although that is no criticism of the tremendously committed performance.

By the time we reach the 5th Quartet of 1962 we have moved on almost thirty years since the 1st. One difference is that Piston has now espoused serial technique although he uses it without strictures and in a personal way. Premiered in Berlin it falls into three movements; again the outer ones being in sonata-form. The usual two contrasting ideas are present; in each case a bouncy, rhythmical one followed by a slower almost romantic melody. Counterpoint and vivacity is the by-word especially in the syncopated finale. The Harlem Quartet brings out its best qualities and make out a real case for this somewhat neglected if not always memorable music.

I recall The Harlem Quartet making quite a ‘splash’ in Britain in 2009 and appearing on the Today Programme on Radio 4, or as the booklet proclaims the ‘Today Show’. They are the first American all-black string quartet.

Far be it from me to condone the short playing time of this CD at less the fifty minutes but I am making an assumption that the remaining Quartets (2 and 4) will come out on a separate disc and could not be fitted onto this. Let’s hope so because the music, the recording and the performances are of a very high quality.

David Hurwitz, November 2010

The first thing you notice in listening to this recording is the beautiful individual and ensemble sound of the Harlem Quartet. Walter Piston's music recalls that of Roussel and, above all, Martinu, especially in his penchant for driving, syncopated allegros and brooding, chromatic slow movements. Many performers have a tendency, as with Martinu (and Hindemith, and other "neoclassical" composers), to hack and slash their way through the quick movements with choppy articulation and a general disregard for that warm, singing timbre that remains the acme of fine quartet playing. The problem to some degree afflicts the only serious competition in this music, the Portland Quartet cycle on Northeastern. So it's wonderful to report that the Harlem Quartet inflects rhythm and phrases with a naturalness and ease that lets the music blossom and breathe. Without ever softening its sharp edges, the group's basic sound is a consistent pleasure all by itself--just lovely string timbre with no grunting, groaning, and gasping to get in the way.

Now for the music. Piston has a reputation for being an "academic" composer on account of his preference for non-programmatic forms and his success as a textbook writer. This is unfair. He was, to be sure, an "absolute" musician, fastidious in his craftsmanship and somewhat severe in style, but his music is nonetheless personal and striking in its directness and purity. This is particularly the case with his quartets. The works on this disc have three movements each, and none lasts longer than a pithy 17 minutes. Within these compact pieces lies a world of expression, with the slow movements of the First and Fifth quartets being particularly intense.

Harmonically this music can be elusive: Piston sometimes employs twelve-tone themes, as in the Fifth quartet, but almost always within a broader tonal framework. The dissonance never piles up to the point of incoherence. This is what some critics object to: Piston's music is always controlled, never "over the top"; it's just good, clean music. But there must be a place for this in the libraries of serious collectors, and if you're one of those, then these beautifully played and engineered performances are for you. I look forward to hearing more from the Harlem Quartet, and not just in Piston.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2010

Though regarded as one of the major American composers of the 20th century, Walter Piston’s reputation largely resides in his eight symphonies and five string quartets. Born in 1894, he was a self-taught violinist, pianist and saxophonist who earned his living playing in dance halls, hotels and restaurants, and was already twenty-six before he began to study composition. Like so many American composers of his time, he was persuaded to move to Paris as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger. There he also was guided by Paul Dukas who had an influence on his use of orchestral colours. Thirty-two before he returned to the States, he found financial sanctuary teaching at Harvard. It did largely restrict the time he had to compose to the summer holidays, his catalogue of works subsequently being quite brief. The influence of his homeland is slight, his early scores belonging to the mainstream of European music of the mid-20th century, the First Quartet’s main attraction coming from the rhythmic impact of the outer movements. Fourteen years separate it from the Third of 1947, by which time had moved closer to Bartók, though melodic invention still dominated his world, the rather sad central movement balanced by a brilliant finale. Jump forward to 1962 for the Fifth, where he was dabbling with the influences of atonality, though it was an almost self-conscious attempt. The clashing harmonies of the central movement are rather manufactured, and, as if to make amends to conservative audiences, the finale bubbles with vivacity. The playing of the Harlem Quartet is fabulous. Rhythmically razor-sharp; intonation in the centre of every note; perfectly balanced and so true to the spirit of the music. Stunning sound quality. I beg Naxos to complete the cycle.

Jean-Yves Duperron
Classical Music Sentinel, September 2010

Naxos have been steadily adding new titles to their ongoing American Classics series for years now, to the point where they have collected together under one label, a comprehensive and expansive number of fine recordings of American music that would otherwise have been buried under the rubble of corporate neglect. This present recording is only one example of the quality and importance of this series.

It is difficult to understand why Walter Piston (1894–1976) is constantly overlooked these days by musicians, record labels and collectors alike. After all, he was a student of Paul Dukas and George Enescu, a teacher to Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter, had music commissioned by Mstislav Rostropovich, and received many prestigious awards.

One need only listen to the Adagio middle movement of his String Quartet No. 1 to appreciate the measure of this composer’s creative skills. The way all four instruments are deeply engaged in this sombre and lyrical music is very well achieved. The last few bars are particularly finely written. The two outer movements that frame it, with their energetic interplay and rhythmic momentum, produce the desired contrast in moods, and make for a very solid first quartet. The String Quartet No. 3 from 1947 and the String Quartet No. 5 from 1962, bring to the fore the fact that Piston was always growing and adapting with the developments in music around him, even though some critics have stamped him as being very conservative. His Fifth Quartet actually makes use of the twelve-tone system, with fine results. All three are fine contributions to 20th century chamber music. Accessible and yet challenging, an unbeatable combination for a good listening experience.

This is the Harlem Quartet’s debut recording. Melissa White (Violin), Ilmar Gavilan (Violin), Juan-Miguel Hernandez (Viola), and Desmond Neysmith (Cello), are all first-place winners of the SPHINX Competition for young Black and Latino musicians. An organization whose mandate is to make classical music accessible to minorities, presenting and promoting multi-culturalism, by emphasis on the talent and work of minority musicians and composers. This recording clearly demonstrates goodwill at work, and is an impressive first release by the Harlem Quartet.

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