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CLASSICAL  December 2009

CLASSICAL December 2009

Subject:

Supersized Strings

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Wed, 9 Dec 2009 17:14:12 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (86 lines)

American String Project, 2006
Arrangements for Strings

*  Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet #4, Op. 18 #4
*  Dmitri Shostakovich: String Quartet #12, Op. 133
*  Pablo de Sarasate (arr. Chase):
      - Caprice Basque
      - Romanza Andaluza
      - Zigeunerweisen

Joseph Gottesman, violin
Stephanie Chase, violin
Harum Rhodes, violin
Toby Appel, viola
Arek Tesarczyk, cello
Julie Albers, cello
The American String Project
Maria Larionoff, Barry Lieberman, artistic directors
MSR 1226 73:08

Summary for the Busy Executive: Not bad, but it could have been great.

Pity the poor bass fiddle player who loves chamber music.  Works that
feature this instrument not only run rare on the ground, but with few
exceptions, don't rise anywhere near the level of a repertory string
quartet.  One such player, Barry Lieberman, decided to do something about
this with the idea of turning string quartets and other chamber works
into music for string chamber ensemble - a group large enough to accommodate
the double bass without losing too much of the intimacy of the string
quartet.

It's a simple concept, but one fraught with practical perils.  For
example, not every string quartet translates well into the bigger medium.
Furthermore, you can't have the bass merely doubling the cello at the
octave below.  In short, you don't want to betray the ensemble values
of the score.  One must indeed consider taste.

Lieberman hooked up with Maria Larionoff and together they formed the
American String Project, a conductorless, somewhat ad hoc string orchestra
made up of first-rate string players from all over.  If their slogan "A
virtuoso in every chair" rings with a bit of hype, it's not that far
from the mark.  You get the impression that any one of these players
could step into the star soloist position and acquit themselves creditably.
Somehow, Lieberman and Larionoff decide on a program.  Usually, Lieberman
writes the arrangements.  They send out invitations to players, and the
group meets for a brief period to rehearse and perform.  Each piece on
the program is assigned a "leader," a person responsible for rehearsal
who acts as a traffic cop for collaborative suggestions from the group
as well as for performance.

Those of us used to "the conductor's vision" of a piece - after, all we
habitually speak of "Furtwaengler's Beethoven" - may feel a bit uneasy
about a collective effort, that we might get "an elephant designed by
committee," rather than a convincing view of the piece.  On the evidence
of this CD, I'd say sometimes yes, sometimes no.  The Beethoven is quite
fine.  Because of the extra weight, it becomes a little symphony, which
suits it, incidentally, very well.  It set up great expectations.  You
would think the same of the Shostakovich.  After all, others of his
string quartets have found extra life in chamber-ensemble arrangements
- Barshai's rendering of the Eighth into a chamber symphony, for example.
However, this performance of the Twelfth lacks the intensity of most
string quartet groups I've heard.  The second movement especially, a
killer twenty minutes long, never really goes anywhere, and it's the
heart of the quartet.  If this movement doesn't come off, a decent first
movement won't save the performance.  I don't think this the fault of
the arrangement, which strikes me as ingenious, or the actual playing,
but of the interpretation, which fails to find points of arrival and
fallback.  It's like watching an endless stream of pasta come out of an
extruder.

The group relaxes more in the Sarasate and have a good time in works
designed with fun as a goal.  Stephanie Chase - arranger, leader, and
primary soloist - plays the bejabbers out of Zigeunerweisen, earning a
well-deserved (and unsexing) "Bravo!" at the end from an audience member
who just couldn't help himself.

In short, this is a mixed bag of a CD. The sound is quite good in the
Beethoven and the Shostakovich, a little muddier in the Sarasate.

Steve Schwartz

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