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CLASSICAL  April 2008

CLASSICAL April 2008

Subject:

North

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Mon, 28 Apr 2008 13:52:22 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (112 lines)

Emerson String Quartet
Intimate Voices

*  Edvard Grieg: String Quartet in g, op. 27
*  Carl Nielsen: At the Bier of a Young Artist, op. 58
*  Jean Sibelius: String Quartet in d, op. 56, "Voces intimae"

Emerson String Quartet
DG 4775960 Total time: 63:41

Summary for the Busy Executive: Sensitive, slightly cool accounts.

From their origins in the English fantasia, string quartets begin in
sociable entertainment and end in philosophy and autobiography.  Writers
usually cite Beethoven as the key to the divide.  Even something as
striking to our ears as Mozart's "Dissonance" quartet says more about
music than about Mozart or about extra-musical ideas.

All three works on this CD's program to some extent indulge in biography,
the post-Beethoven side of the divide.  None of the composers' reputations
depend on these works, although they all wrote, in my opinion, masterpieces
(if unusual masterpieces) in the genre.

The Grieg, of course, gets the same lack of respect as most of his
large-scale compositions.  Even star string quartets who have made
wonderful recordings have fought among themselves over whether they
should spend time with it at all.  As a lad, I first heard the Juilliard
in the work and loved it immediately.  Of course, I knew nothing about
quartet, or even string, writing at the time.  I've since found out a
few things and can now see flaws, but they don't seem to matter a whole
lot to me.  The work's passion and melodic beauty reduce such concerns
to triviality.  Grieg, a pianist rather than a string player, may translate
piano writing to string textures, but the results always "sound." The
writing is mostly chordal, with just enough contrapuntal leavening to
keep interest, although in the finale, Grieg achieves real rhythmic
independence for each instrument.  Furthermore, Grieg keeps an impressive
hold on architecture.  A motto-theme - similar to the opening notes of
his piano concerto - runs through every movement, with neat rhythmic and
modal variations.  Obviously, Grieg has conceived the quartet as a whole.
The melodic invention is, predictably, abundant and pure genius.  The
Emerson gives a surprisingly elegant, detailed reading - its very elegance
throwing me a curve.  "Grieg needs passionate commitment to the beauty
of his ideas, rather than to be turned into another Mendelssohn," I
thought.  After all, the composer had written it in response to a crisis
in his marriage, reflected in the sharp alternations from storms to
wildflower tenderness.  Nevertheless, the Emerson gradually won me over,
mainly through superb, intelligent playing.

Nielsen wrote four string quartets around the turn of the century,
probably for himself (a violinist) and his friends to play.  They are
attractive, well-crafted affairs, but certainly without the visionary
qualities of the symphonies.  The brief At the bier of a young artist,
written on the death of a painter friend and played at the funeral,
taps an altogether deeper vein of emotion, running the familiar Nielsen
dichotomy of chromatic anguish and drop-dead-gorgeous folk-like clarity.
In context, it evokes the grief at the loss of a noble life.  It's made
for the Emerson's cool approach, like Danish Modern furniture.  Some
accounts push the work into bathos.  Emerson gives you the feeling of
tragic resignation.

The Sibelius quartet comes from 1909, between the Third and Fourth
Symphonies.  It stands as his finest, most profound chamber piece, by a
lot.  That he wrote it under the shadow of death (throat cancer) shouldn't
surprise us: it has the air of a testament.  What surprises me, however,
is how unlike the symphonies it is: no great builds over pedal points,
a much more nervous, heavily contrapuntal surface.  Of roughly-contemporary
quartets, off the top of my head, only the Ravel quartet of 1903, the
Schoenberg second (1908), and the Elgar of 1918 achieve at least the
same level of distinction.  More than many of his works, particularly
the Fourth Symphony, Sibelius's idiom acknowledges its foundation in
folk melody without actually, like Grieg's, keeping to the general line
of folk melody.  The muscular first movement, unlike Grieg's, goes for
leanness rather than sonority.  It begins with solo and ends in unison,
moving in the meanwhile along a taut sonata argument, leading directly
to a quick quasi-scherzo, based on the same themes.  The scherzo comes
closest to the allegros of the symphonies, but minus the long builds.
It's over in the blink of an eye, but with a powerful effect all out of
proportion to its length.  The quartet's nickname, "Voces intimae," comes
from the adagio third movement, a lament, though again contrapuntal
rather than chordal.  For a while, scholars thought that the phrase
referred to a chamber-music ideal.  However, the composer pencilled the
phrase over three chords, near the beginning of the movement and so out
of key that they interrupt the argument.  The effect, at once elegant
and striking, has such power that it invites a programmatic interpretation
- the brush of a wing from the angel of death, for instance.  The composer
picks up the argument again, but toward the end, the out-of-key chord
reappears, this time integrated into the discourse.  Acceptance?

Between the slow movement and the finale, Sibelius inserts a second
scherzo, this one in triple time, marked "allegretto (ma pesante)." That
somewhat contradictory indication - "pesante" means "heavy" but we usually
think of allegrettos as light - provides the key to the movement, heavy
and light alternate.  The Emerson disappoints here.  Its lights are
wonderful, but it never gets heavy enough, and thus the contrast never
really comes off.  The finale begins and ends pretty much in ambiguity.
Themes get reduced to accompaniment, and supporting figures rise to main
interest.  It begins fairly conventionally but less than halfway through,
it switches directions as it turns into a manic toccata - as the liner
notes say, almost two movements in one.  The quartet rises to the occasion
here, committing to the danger and instability of the movement.

All in all, an attractive program intelligently presented.  The one thing
I miss from the Emerson is passion, though they certainly provide
compensations.

Steve Schwartz

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