August 06, 2020


Jonathan Leshnoff: String Quartets Nos. 3 and 4; Four Dances for String Quartet. Carpe Diem String Quartet (Charles Wetherbee and Amy Galluzzo, violins; Korine Fujiwara, viola; Carol Ou, cello). MSR Classics. $12.95.

Shulamit Ran: Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory—String Quartet No. 3; Jennifer Higdon: Voices; Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet. Pacifica Quartet (Simin Ganatra and Austin Hartman, violins; Mark Holloway, viola; Brandon Vamos, cello); Otis Murphy, alto saxophone. Cedille. $16.

     Contemporary American composers – of several generations – continue to find more and more things that they want to say through the medium of the string quartet. Jonathan Leshnoff (born 1973) wrote four quartets in less than a decade, the third and fourth both in 2011, and then created a fifth, Four Dances for String Quartet, in 2014. The third work, known as the “Miller-Kahn” quartet because it was commissioned by Harris Miller and Deborah Kahn, is a piece of considerable seriousness whose first movement, Grave, is longer than its second and third put together – and a good deal more intense. There is considerable power in many of Leshnoff’s works, and it is much in evidence in this movement, particularly in unison passages that seem to strive again and again for a goal that is never quite defined. The very short second-movement Romance has a dancelike lilt that changes the mood abruptly and not entirely satisfactorily, although it has a valse triste character indicating that the first movement’s concerns have not quite dissipated. The concluding Allegro with Spirit has some of the flavor of a perpetuum mobile, with a hint of underlying tension that never quite dissolves. Quartet No. 4 is a lighter and less-portentous five-movement work, opening and closing with Largo movements – the first marked molto rubato and the last rubato. The first movement has a sense of stasis about it, with the second, simply marked Fast, displaying its own brand of seriousness and propulsive motion. The middle movement, Slow and pure, is something of a throwback harmonically, delving into considerable lyricism with only hints of disquiet. The fourth movement – another Fast – has an ostinato feeling combined with some contrasting pizzicato passages. The finale returns to a static feeling in a way that is not so much conclusive as it is indicative of a piece that ruminates for some time without ever becoming decisive – although, like the third quartet, the fourth shows considerable sensitivity to forms of expressiveness for the ensemble. Four Dances, in contrast, is a lighter work, offering movements labeled Waltz, Pavane, Chas Tanz, and Furlana. The first of these is delicate and a touch melancholy – another piece with a valse triste feeling – while the second is quiet, emotionally reserved rather than deeply expressive, and has very little dancelike feeling. The third dance, which is quite short, has considerable lilt and spirit that makes one wish it had gone on longer; and the fourth is a scurrying and rather dissonant essay in forward motion that is not especially danceable but makes an effective conclusion. All three of these quartets receive their world première recordings on a new MSR Classics CD featuring first-rate playing by the Carpe Diem String Quartet (which gave the first performance of Four Dances the year after it was written). Leshnoff’s willingness to incorporate emotionally trenchant material into a modern but not avant-garde style makes this an attractive release for listeners who enjoy string-quartet music and would like to familiarize themselves with one way in which some of today’s American composers explore it.

     There are three other ways in evidence on a new Cedille recording of music by Shulamit Ran (born 1949), Jennifer Higdon (born 1962), and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (born 1939). Ran’s third quartet (2012-13) was written for the Pacifica String Quartet, and Higdon’s Voices (1993) is dedicated to the group, so the quality of the performances here is scarcely a surprise – and the handling of Zwilich’s “quartet-plus” from 2007, in which the strings are joined by alto saxophone, is also exemplary. The Ran and Higdon quartets are illustrative music; this contrasts with Leshnoff’s pure-music approach, which is closer to that of Zwilich’s work. Ran’s Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory (receiving its world première recording here) is a tribute to artists who continued to create during the Holocaust, and especially to Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944), who died at Auschwitz. The four-word title differs from the titles of the movements themselves, which are called That Which Happened, Menace, “If I perish – do not let my paintings die,” and Shards, Memory. The first movement is suitably serious and dissonant, with the second being a kind of grotesque scherzo whose first-violin part is slightly reminiscent of the intended eeriness of the scordatura violin in the second movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. The third movement, whose title is a quotation from Nussbaum, is filled with “shuddering” effects and harmonics of dismay. The fourth is an epilogue and peroration, obviously – perhaps too obviously – intended to urge the audience to remember and respond to the horrors of the past by ensuring they are never repeated. This is a work that is far more effective if one knows its underlying story before hearing it than if one simply comes to it without understanding what it is intended to communicate. Higdon’s Voices features three movements labeled Blitz, Soft Enlacing, and Grace, each of which is supposed to evoke a specific image. The first has nothing to do with the wartime concept of blitzkrieg but is simply energetic and dynamic. The second has more of a nervous feeling than its title indicates, with a calm demeanor somewhat at odds with its dissonances. The third fits its title best, with a sense of warmth and appreciation in which the combined strings’ unison passages seem to point toward striving for a better, if imprecise, time or set of circumstances. Here the specific intent of the music is not really needed for it to have an effect, and in some ways the titles force an interpretation on the music that its sound does not fully support. As for Zwilich’s quintet, whose untitled movements are notated simply by the recommended speed at which they are to be played, it is the most interesting work on this disc, not only for its inclusion of the alto saxophone but also for the evenness with which Otis Murphy’s playing integrates with and is balanced by that of the string quartet – both as a whole and in terms of the individual instruments. The conversational element of chamber music, long seen as crucial to the medium but often abandoned by contemporary composers, is very much in evidence here. The somewhat marchlike rhythm of the first movement; the hesitating jazzlike bounciness of the second, with its focus on individualization of the instruments’ parts; and the combination of regularity and improvisational sound in the third – these add up to a very well-constructed work that integrates the alto saxophone skillfully into the strings and provides enough fluency, and enough surprising twists and turns, to keep listeners interested throughout. Both this disc and the one featuring some of Leshnoff’s quartet music show the continued variations in structure and communication of which the four-strings complement remains capable some two-and-a-half centuries after Haydn solidified the modern concept of a string quartet and himself created 68 examples of the form.

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