July 10, 2008


Ravel: String Quartet in F; Thomas Adès: Arcadiana; Mozart: String Quartet in F Major, K. 590. Calder Quartet (Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook, violins; Jonathan Moerschel, viola; Eric Byers, cello). Calder Quartet CD. $20.

Matt McBane: In the Backyard; Magnet; No Response; Imagining Winter; Drivin’. Build (Matt McBane, violin; Andrea Lee, cello; Ben Campbell, bass; Mike Cassedy, piano/Rhodes; Adam Gold, drums). New Amsterdam. CD, $10; download, $5.

      One way for artists to show themselves to the world just as they want to be shown is to produce recordings of exactly the music they wish, programmed just as they want it to be. This can be highly effective – or perhaps a bit more revelatory of weaknesses than the artists thought it would be. In the case of the Calder Quartet’s new CD, it is both. The 71-minute recording approximates the sort of recital that this top-notch young group presents in concert. There is one major staple of the quartet repertoire, one less-known and more modern work by an important composer, and one contemporary piece that will be new to almost everyone hearing the CD. The Calder’s players are remarkably smooth in making transitions among these three works’ very different styles. They play almost always with excellent ensemble and near-intuitive collaboration. And they seem to have no difficulty with any of the composers’ technical demands. On balance, the Ravel Quartet is the most successful work here, with the players beautifully balancing its poise and its emotion, handling its rhythmic changes and sometimes-unusual bowing techniques with apparent ease. This is music that never quite settles – in part tranquil, in part almost frenzied, it jumps around emotionally and thematically (even though its first movement sets forth many of the themes of the whole piece). The Calder Quartet picks up beautifully on the work’s will-o’-the-wisp qualities.

      The players do a fine job with Thomas Adès’ Arcadiana, too, but there is far less to the music itself. This is a seven-movement work that seems to require a great deal of explanation – the odd-numbered movements “are all aquatic, and would be musically continuous if played consecutively,” for example, as the composer explains in the booklet notes. The middle (fourth) movement, which is the longest (although still under four minutes), is called “Et…” (with ellipsis) and refers to the saying on a tomb portrayed in a Poussin painting (actually, Nicolas Poussin used the phrase “Et in Arcadia ego” in two paintings, and the phrase’s meaning has an ambiguity of which Adès seems unaware). But the musical issue here is how well the piece works, whether or not one has the composer’s gloss on it; and the answer is that it is pleasant enough in its post-modern way, using the instruments cleverly and distinctively, but seems to say much less than Adès himself thinks it says. The Calder Quartet plays it very well indeed, but Arcadiana is not really much of a piece.

      Mozart’s 23rd and final quartet, on the other hand, is one of the great chamber works – but here the performance is surprisingly flaccid. This quartet is nowhere near as languid as the Calder players make it, and there is even a touch of less-than-perfect ensemble work in the finale – a rarity for this group. It is almost as if the Calder Quartet gave the Mozart (which is superficially the easiest of these three works to play) too little thought before recording it; yet this piece requires a higher level of understanding than either of the others on the CD. The Calder Quartet is so good that it seems likely the players will grow into this music in time; but they do not quite have it yet. Incidentally, this CD’s packaging shows the power and peril of self-promotion: it features lovely original art by Dave Muller, but the design completely omits times – no lengths are given for the whole pieces or for their individual movements.

      The new Matt McBane release is of a very different type, although it too is intended to showcase someone – McBane himself – in the way he wants to be displayed. This is a very short CD – only 33 minutes – with five pieces that may best be described as easy-listening jazz fusion. The three shortest pieces have the least to say: In the Backyard is merely a floaty dreamscape that sounds like many others; Magnet features an interesting contrast between a specific rhythmic pattern and longer melodic lines, but it seems to go on and on and becomes gimmicky; and No Response is one of those pop tunes that seem to issue endlessly from middle-of-the-road radio. Imagining Winter is more interesting: its static chords at start and finish provide an effective chill, while its drum part suggests the advance of something dark. Also of interest is Drivin’, which at nearly 14 minutes is by far the longest work here. McBane says it resulted largely from his immersion in the music of minimalist composer Steve Reich, but Drivin’ is not an imitative work and uses minimalism quite differently from the way Reich does – primarily as a point of continuity among different kinds of music and a bridge from one type to the next. Drivin’ does go on a bit too long, but it offers many effective moments along the way, and the performance (of this and all the music) by McBane’s group, Build, is everything the composer could have wanted – which does not necessarily mean McBane’s music is destined to reach as large an audience as he would like.

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