November 24, 2021


Brahms: String Quartets Nos. 1-3; Intermezzo in A, Op. 118, No. 2. Alexander String Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violins; Paul Yarbrough, viola; Sandy Wilson, cello). Foghorn Classics. $27.99 (2 CDs).

Dvořák: String Quintet No. 3, Op. 97; György Kurtág: Six moments musicaux, Op. 28; Officium breve, Op. 44. Parker Quartet (Daniel Chong and Ken Hamao, violins; Jessica Bodner, viola; Kee-Hyun Kim, cello); Kim Kashkashian, viola. ECM New Series. $15.99.

Adam Roberts: Oboe Quartet; Shift Differential; Rounds; Diptych; Happy/Angry Music; Bell Threads. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     The subtlety and mutuality of purpose with which the members of the Alexander String Quartet approach Brahms’ three quartets are almost a perfect example of the conversational form of music-making of which string quartets have been exemplars since Haydn’s time. This ensemble’s sheer tonal quality is the first thing a listener will notice: there is purity, warmth, richness and elegance throughout. And there is precision, too: many quartets rely on vibrato to produce a larger, warmer sound, but the Alexander String Quartet is remarkably restrained in this regard, its vibrato as carefully controlled as its ensemble passages are tightly bound. This works exceptionally well in Brahms, whose sound can all too easily slop over into muddiness. A perfect example comes in String Quartet No. 3, whose second movement’s cantabile part faces a rather thickened accompaniment that can easily become clotted. On their new Foghorn Classics recording, these performers manage to make both the singing elements and the double-stopping clear through a sense of mutuality that approaches sleight of hand. Indeed, the third string quartet, which in some ways is the lightest of the three despite the considerable compositional elegance of the final Poco Allegretto con Variazoni, comes across with such pleasure and apparently casual playfulness here that it is easy to see why this work in B-flat was Brahms’ favorite of his three quartets. Yet the Alexander String Quartet is every bit as effective in the two earlier, minor-key quartets (No. 1 in C minor, No. 2 in A minor). The first quartet is so serious that it can sound dour, but not here: there is power aplenty, and considerable drama (befitting the C minor key), but even the most-dramatic moments – such as the coda of the first movement – are presented with careful clarity that renders them all the more effective. The second quartet, somewhat more relaxed than the first, is notable in this performance for attention to such details as the second movement’s violin-cello duet and the odd third-movement touches that explain Brahms’ marking it Quasi Minuetto. As an encore for this two-CD set, there is an interesting quartet setting of the late piano Intermezzo in A, created by the Alexander String Quartet’s first violinist, Zakarias Grafilo. The arrangement emphasizes the gentle tenderness of this little lullaby, and the fact that the recording ends with this Andante teneramente piece rather than something more virtuosic and intense shows clearly the sensitivity and care with which this ensemble’s members approach all the repertoire heard here.

     Brahms’ quartets contrast interestingly with similar works by his colleague and friend Dvořák, for all that Brahms was initially the younger composer’s mentor and advocate and the friendship between them was not entirely untroubled (largely because of Dvořák’s feelings about Brahms’ agnosticism). Brahms wrote two string quintets in addition to his three quartets; Dvořák, more prolific in the chamber idiom, wrote three quintets, of which the third is the centerpiece of an interestingly programmed ECM New Series disc featuring the Parker Quartet, with Kim Kashkashian as second viola. This quintet is from Dvořák’s “American” period and, like other works of the time, neatly merges the composer’s customary Bohemian sound with melodic inspiration drawn from the New World. The most-intriguing such inspiration, although it is somewhat speculative, lies in the opening of the second-movement Scherzo, whose percussive elements may reflect Native American tribal music. The warmth and melodiousness of this quintet come through to very fine effect in this performance, from the unaffected sound of the very opening of the first movement to the expansiveness of the Larghetto and the exceptional brightness of the dancelike finale. It is a thoroughly winning reading of music whose apparent ease of communication belies the carefulness of its construction. However, the pairing of the quintet with two quartet works by György Kurtág (born 1926) does not really work very well, turning this CD into a well-played but not entirely satisfying (+++) release. The two Kurtág pieces are, in effect, the composer’s third and fourth string quartets, but his insistently minimalist esthetic and constant references to specific composers and other artists render Kurtág’s pieces as difficult to approach as Dvořák’s quintet is welcoming. Kurtág’s Officium Breve, for example, actually has the full title Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky and is a tribute to Kurtág’s fellow composer, who lived from 1911 to 1977. The work contains no fewer than 15 very short, Webernesque movements, most lasting less than a minute, all of them full of motivic minutiae and tiny gestural material. Three movements explicitly refer to Webern, and it is only the final Arioso interrotto, which references Szervánszky directly, that comes across as something like a tribute. Moments Musicaux is a six-movement piece with slightly more-extended individual elements, ranging from 90 seconds to three-and-a-half minutes. Here Kurtág includes an explicit reference to Janáček and a memorial movement to Hungarian-American pianist György Sebők (1922-1999). All the music in the two Kurtág quartets is aggressively atonal, its communicative ability stunted by the necessity of knowing its referents and paying attention to the composer’s handling of whatever influences or personalities he is dealing with or channeling. There is certainly a place for music like Kurtág’s, but it fares poorly in juxtaposition with the Dvořák quintet with which it appears on this disc. The disparity between the forms of communication of the two composers is simply too great – and is even more accentuated by the placement of the Dvořák between the two Kurtág pieces, the effect of which is to draw attention to just how spare and emotionally sparse the Kurtág material is by comparison with that of the earlier composer.

     Like Kurtág’s music, that of Adam Roberts on a New Focus Recordings release has a narrow emotional compass and a preoccupation more with sound for its own sake than for sound whose purpose is communicative. The quartet here, which is the longest work on the disc, is for oboe (Erik Behr) and members of the JACK Quartet (Christopher Otto, violin; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello). Its second movement claims the sort of connection to an earlier composer of which Kurtág is fond: Roberts’ movement is called Lament: Hommage à J.S. Bach. And in fact there are Bachian elements here, including lyricism that Roberts otherwise denies to himself and his audience. Roberts (born 1980) repeatedly undermines the references to earlier material, though, as if extreme chromaticism and dissonance somehow improve on or pay a kind of odd tribute to the Baroque. The quartet’s first movement – Explosive, Curvy, Raucous – and its final Toccare give the work as a whole a classical three-movement structure, but Roberts goes out of his way to undercut and undermine that design and the occasional quotations embedded in it by making typical contemporary-composer performance demands, such as extended glissandi and material that floats with odd dissonance above disconnected accompaniments. This (+++) CD does showcase Roberts’ interest in various chamber-music and solo-instrument composition, although the sound of the various works tends to be very similar even when the instrumentation differs. The opening and closing works on the disc show this clearly: Shift Differential for violin (Mary Bennardo) and viola (Hannah Levinson) is aurally closely akin to Bell Threads for solo viola (Levinson). The solo treatment of the harp (Hannah Lash) in Rounds parallels that of the solo viola, with each work pushing to extend the inherent sound of the instrument for which it is written (another typical contemporary-composer approach) and both featuring irregular rhythms and a disconnected, jagged overall feeling. Also here is Diptych for violin and viola (Bennardo and Levinson), the two movements sounding similar to the single-movement Shift Differential but going on at considerably greater length, with the second movement focused on the production of microtones within scalar patterns. Different instruments are used for Happy/Angry Music, played by an ensemble called Bearthoven that includes piano (Karl Larson), percussion (Matt Evans), and bass (Pat Swoboda). This piece is more fun than anything else on the disc, accepting and accentuating the two percussion instruments (the piano is treated quite percussively) and often using the bass in a percussive manner as well. It is not always clear what music is happy and what sounds are angry, but it scarcely matters: parts of the piece are propulsive, parts hover aurally and fade into silence, parts delve into a level of consonance that Roberts otherwise employs infrequently, and parts (such as extended scales on the piano) simply sound silly – apparently intentionally. The work goes on a bit too long (almost 12 minutes), but there is enough cleverness in it to make it enjoyable to listen to. In fact, it is worth hearing more than once, a statement that is not always easy to make about contemporary music. The rest of this disc is on the ordinary side, but Happy/Angry Music is interesting enough to keep listeners engaged and certainly not angry – in fact, to keep them at least intermittently happy.

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