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CLASSICAL  March 2008

CLASSICAL March 2008

Subject:

String quartets by Quincy Porter

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 25 Mar 2008 15:38:15 -0700

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text/plain

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Quincy Porter

*  String Quartets 1-4

Ives Quartet
Naxos 8.559305  Total time: 65:30

Summary for the Busy Executive: Yalie earnestness.

 From the Thirties through the Fifties, William Quincy Porter (known
professionally as Quincy Porter) enjoyed the esteem of his composing
colleagues, particularly for his chamber music.  He studied with, among
others, Vincent d'Indy and Ernest Bloch, and like other members of his
generation &ndash; Randall Thompson and Roger Sessions (another Bloch
pupil), for example &ndash; became instrumental in shaping the American
university theory and composition curriculum.  After several prestigious
appointments, he wound up at Yale and won the Pulitzer in 1954.  However,
he never had a real hit, unlike Copland, Bernstein, Schuman, Harris, or
even Piston, and since his death in 1966, few orchestras and performers
have taken him up.  Of the quartets on this CD, only the third is
published.  The Ives had to get manuscript copies from the Yale library
for the other three.  These quartets are close to 80 years old.

As a teen, I heard his eighth string quartet (of nine), an oboe quintet
(subtitled "Elegiac"), and his second violin sonata, none of which aroused
my curiosity to explore further.  This changed, however, when I heard
his magnificent New England Episodes for orchestra, on the B side of an
LP featuring the Robert Ward piano concerto, the piece for which I had
actually bought the album.  I've since heard other works and now consider
him uneven, if not in craft then in inspiration.  Some of these things
are blander than tapioca.  Others convince you that you've heard a major
voice.

The first string quartet, from 1923, definitely falls into the latter
category.  It strongly recalls Bloch, although Bloch had written only
the first of his own quartets.  I have no idea whether Bloch had any
direct input on the quartet, although I do know that Porter began his
studies with the older composer somewhere around this time.  It takes
from the "abstract" rather than from the "Jewish" side of Bloch's output,
and as well as Bloch himself &ndash; a rare thing among Bloch's followers.
Nevertheless, you won't catch the anger of prophets here.  Still, you
feel the depths of the thing, especially the gorgeous slow movement.  In
all these quartets, Porter raises his game for the slow movements.  Not
one falls short of wonderful.  Richard Whitehouse, who provided the liner
notes, sees the influence of the Bartok second quartet on Porter's own
second.  If so, it has flown past my ears.  To me, Porter doesn't have
that strong an artistic profile.  That is, I doubt you would guess the
composer of the latter three quartets, even if you knew other Porter
works.  However, I do note a texture leaner and meaner than that of the
first quartet.  This tendency becomes sharper in the third and fourth
quartets.  The fourth, with the exception of, again, the slow movement,
strikes me as more dutiful than inspired.  Nevertheless, the string
writing and the concern for equal interest among the parts (Porter played
the viola and may have wanted something meaty for the player) show that
the regard for Porter wasn't misplaced.  The quartets may not proclaim
their composer as loudly as the Shostakoviches do, but they do come
across as earned, elevated discourse.

The Ives Quartet have absorbed these pieces into their bones.  They
slough off nothing.  Their rhythm is excitingly precise, and their
ensemble is as clear as Vouvray, thus allowing you to hear Porter's
elegant counterpoint.  I look forward to more releases from these folks.

Steve Schwartz

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