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Nick Barnard
MusicWeb International, December 2009

Major repertoire played with white-hot commitment by a simply phenomenal quartet. Three very different quartets providing an excellent overview of this composer’s work—by turns muscular, mysterious and complex. I don’t find the performance of soprano Lucy Shelton quite to my taste in the 3rd Quartet but this still strolls into my top six. © 2009 MusicWeb International

Phillip Scott
Fanfare, November 2009

More than most, Ginastera’s compositional output may be divided into three stylistic periods. His early works, using an impressionist language, were nationalistic in influence and drew heavily on Argentine dance rhythms. During his middle period, he expanded the scope of his tonality while remaining attached to his Hispanic roots, and in his late works he turned to contemporary avant-garde idioms. In my view, his best work comes from the middle period: the brilliant Harp Concerto and the succinct Variaciones concertantes. He was more individual than in his early impressionistic mode, and paradoxically more individual than he was to become after he adopted the standard stylistic traits of the 1960s and 1970s. His first two string quartets date from the beginning and end of that middle period.

Ginastera’s quartets demand a high level of virtuosity from the performers. Extreme dynamics, high harmonics, and syncopated rhythms requiring tight ensemble appear throughout. The First Quartet of 1948 is notable for its light-footed Scherzo (vivacissimo), its atmospheric slow movement (calmo e poetico), and a vigorous, stamping finale (allegramente rustico).

A similar wispy Scherzo movement occurs in the Second Quartet (1958, rev. 1968), but there it is deconstructed. In five movements, the Second Quartet contains an “extra” movement built from a series of cadenzas from each of the instruments (libero e rapsodico), before plunging into its own modernized version of a dance-inflected finale. The first movement presents a 12-tone theme, the first use of that technique in the composer’s work.

By the time of the Third Quartet, Ginastera had left his previous formal procedures behind. He introduced a soprano soloist, as did Schoenberg in his Second Quartet—a precedent of which the status-conscious Argentine composer was well aware. He set texts by Jiménez, Lorca, and Alberti, illuminating the soprano’s vocalizing and occasional spoken declamation with a series of ingenious string effects. The imagery and atmosphere of the poems dictate the musical form, so the task for the musicians is to reproduce specific moods, on top of the considerable technical challenges.

Previous recordings of all three quartets exist, though only one currently available brings them together on a single CD: the Cuarteto Latinoamericano (on Élan). I have not heard that disc, but I have the Latinoamericano recording of Quartet No. 1 in a mixed program from the same label (which may or may not be the same performance): they bring genuine excitement and tight ensemble to the piece, but are equally matched by the Ensō on this new release.

The original performers of the Third Quartet, Benita Valente and the Juilliard Quartet, recorded the work for the Bridge label in an interesting mixed recital that is well worth hearing for the couplings by Harbison and Wernick. Valente sings with great control and understanding, but the recording was made some 27 years after the event, by which time her voice had lost much of its bloom.

On the new disc, Lucy Shelton is a revelation: she brings pure tone and a wide range of vocal color to her interpretation. (Valente is more convincing in the relatively few spoken passages.) The U.S.-based Ensō Quartet plays with warmth and unanimity, meeting all the technical and interpretive hurdles with apparent ease. Naxos’s sound is excellent, the timing is generous, and a translation of the poetry is provided, making this CD the version of choice, regardless of price.

Stephen Estep
American Record Guide, November 2009

The Ensō Quartet plays very well; they’ve got their intonation and ensemble together. They take full advantage of texture changes to give the sound some needed variety amidst the nervous harshness of Quartets 1 and 2. I had this recurring though barely noticed thought that their tone as a group was remarkably unified; I then read in the notes that their instruments are a matched set made in 2006 by Nigel Harris. Shelton’s voice is pleasant…The sound is good

David Olds
The WholeNote, September 2009

Although considered one of the most important South American composers, his reputation has been overshadowed by his student Astor Piazzolla and perhaps his brightest moment in the sun was Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s 1973 recording of Toccata, an adaptation of the finale from Ginastera’s first piano concerto, on “Brain Salad Surgery”. Welcome then is the Ensö Quartet’s recording of the Complete String Quartets. Dating from 1948, 1968 and 1973 the three quartets span much of Ginastera’s creative career. For the final work the quartet is joined by soprano Lucy Shelton in three of the five movements which feature texts by Juan Ramón Jiménez and Federico Garcia Lorca.

Nick Barnard
MusicWeb International, September 2009

One of numerous missionary projects launched by Naxos is the promotion of the music of the leading 20th Century Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera. Previous to this issue they have encompassed his complete piano and keyboard works, two piano concertos, complete works for cello and piano and a licensed reissue of his two early and famous cowboy ballets. The latter, in particular the suite drawn from the 1941 ballet Estancia Op.8 has become the piece and indeed the sound-world by which he is best known. That sound could best be described as a feral percussive toccata-like style in which wild folk-derived cross-rhythms are hurled with great force in displays of musical muscularity. It is viscerally exciting but represents only one element—and indeed often an early one—of Ginastera’s art. In simplistic terms his musical career can be divided into three distinct phases; “Objective Nationalism” (1934–1948), “Subjective Nationalism” (1948–1958), and “Neo-Expressionism” (1958–1983). They chart a gradual move away from an overtly Nationalistic/folk-based style to something more personal although with clearly Latin-American roots. Very neatly, each of his three String Quartets presented here fall into one of the periods and hence represent a self-contained over-view of his musical development…the performances here by the Ensō Quartet from America are quite staggeringly brilliant. I don’t think I have been so thrilled by the sound of a string quartet in a long time. These pieces could be a list of potential musical pot-holes with problems of intonation, ensemble, style, interpretation on every line. The Ensō Quartet do not so much circumvent these problems as blaze their way through them as though they barely existed. It really is exceptionally fine quartet playing. The Juilliard Quartet were the premiere performers for the latter two quartets which probably explains why Ginastera felt there were no technical bounds—the Ensōs are every bit their equal. My tiniest, inconsequential quibble is a recording that is fractionally close for my own personal taste but even this they turn to their favour with the closeness emphasising the earthy vigour of many of the passages as well as the accuracy of their playing.

The individual movement tempo descriptions are very telling—the String Quartet No. 1 Op. 20 opens with an Allegro violento ed agitato and ends with an Allegramente Rustico. But it would be quite wrong and misleading to characterize this music as though it were some kind of gymnastic high energy work out. For sure those movements are as exciting as anything in the quartet literature but I found the range of musical expression remarkable too. The strangely disquieting Presto Magico from the String Quartet No. 2 Op. 26 is a skittering night-scene full of disquieting sounds and rustlings—a half waking nightmare. For sure you can hear that Ginastera knows his Bartók but it’s a nodding acquaintance and not at all plagiaristic. More interestingly, for the first time, in his use of a wide range of string effects from snaps to glissandi, I thought I heard the influence Ginastera had on his pupil Astor Piazzolla. By the time of the second quartet he was moving towards a form of 12-tone serialism. Please don’t let that turn you away. Yes, he writes in a expressionist and dissonant style but by goodness it is expressive—there is nothing dry or academic here. The finale of the second quartet is his ultimate instrumental tour-de-force—a Furioso of blistering venom. Again the Ensō Quartet play as though all the hounds of hell were chasing them—playing that threatens the very limit of technical possibility and yet miraculously they storm through exultantly.

After the first two quartets the third is strikingly different in many ways. Most obviously in its use of a soprano. To a degree I would have to say it is more a four movement song-cycle for soprano arranged around a instrumental Fantastico…the quartet provide a performance full of insight and imagination.

I have enjoyed the music of Ginastera greatly before I heard this disc but I consider this a revelation—showing as it does a range and compositional technique of which, in my ignorance, I was previously unaware. I find it hard to believe that these magnificent pieces could be performed better than they are here by the Ensō Quartet—seek out this group, they are clearly bound for greatness. One little foot-note; a particular quality of the ensemble that struck me as I listened was their tonal unanimity so how interesting to read that they play on a set of matched modern instruments made by London-based maker Nigel Harris: clearly magnificent instruments played to within an inch of their lives by superb musicians. If I could give this disc a standing ovation of one in my front room after listening to it I would!

String quartet playing of jaw-dropping prowess revealing masterpieces of the 20th century quartet literature.

Brian Wise, July 2009

Alberto Ginastera was the most important Argentinean composer of the 20th century. His three string quartets are vital, haunting works, but little known. A new recording by the Enso Quartet begins with the First Quartet, a colorful swirl of Argentinean cowboy songs and malambo dance rhythms, couched in rich layers of chromaticism. The Second Quartet moves in a more modernist, though still primitive, direction, but it’s Ginastera’s Third Quartet that’s the most impressive and features settings of Spanish-language poets.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2009

Among the most arresting string quartets written in the post-Second World War years, the three by Alberto Ginastera have yet to acquire the high esteem in which they should be held. In his early years he had composed highly coloured scores influenced by the melodies and rhythms of South America, and of his native Argentina in particular. But by the time he composed the First Quartet in 1948 he had entered into a phase, to use his own words, when ‘it was time to drop ethnic realism in favour of the creation of an imagined folklore’. Having heard these scores a few times I know what he means, but it had taken him a long way from the popular Ginastera of former years. To say that in the string quartets he became the Bartok of South America is an over-simplification, but I hope it offers you an idea of what to expect. He readily flips between tonality and atonality, his textures are complex, fascinating, and often of a disturbing quality. They sure present a technical challenge that few quartets would want to tackle, the final Furioso of the Second Quartet almost impossibly difficult. He equally demands an enormous dynamic range, so please don’t feel tempted to higher the volume for the opening to the Third Quartet. That proves to be a disquieting score for soprano and string quartet, the music expressing love that is both happy and misplaced. I want to retain it in my mind, but it is a score that will take time to appreciate. The soloist is the great American soprano, Lucy Shelton, the three works played by the Ensō Quartet. Formed in the States in 1999, they play with passionate commitment and tremendous skill, while Naxos’s Canadian recording team offer another faultless product.

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