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PORTER: String Quartets Nos. 7, 5, 6, 8 – Ives String Q. – Naxos

PORTER: String Quartet No. 7; String Quartet No. 5; String Quartet No. 6; String Quartet No. 8 – Ives String Q. – Naxos 8.559781, 66:00 (6/9/15) ****:

Connecticut born Quincy Porter (1897-1966) can claim a prestigious pedagogy that embraces Yale University and Horatio Parker, Ernest Bloch in New York and Cleveland, and Vincent D’Indy in Paris. The result fashions a neo-classic style to Porter’s innate but idiosyncratic tonal harmony. A practicing musician on violin and viola, Porter had a thorough grounding in chamber music, and he composed nine quartets over the years 1922-1958.  The majority of the works recorded here by the Ives Quartet, written 1935-1950, conform to the three-movement format, two lively movements’ surrounding a slow movement. The Quartet No. 8 (1950), however, conforms to a one-movement pattern that subdivides into a loose, three movement structure.

The opening work, the Seventh Quartet (1943), owes its impetus to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. As a piece of “absolute” music, the work proves effective and direct, utilizing various bowing techniques – mostly pizzicato – to evolve the sonata form to which Porter adheres.  The cello part (Stephen Harrison) will become quite rewarding for the player, especially in the resonant last movement, Allegro moderato. As a lyricist, Porter does not seem terribly inspired, but his second movement Adagio molto makes a yearning statement that evolves without padding or prolixity. We feel admiration for a composer of concision and economy of means.

The Quartet No. 5 (1935) presents us a dense texture, rife with solemn thoughts, almost like a Steinbeck novel from this bleak period in American history. The slow introduction, Adagio ma non troppo, gives way to an energetic Allegro moderato whose texture might take its rhythmic cues from Bloch and Bartok.  The first violin (Bettina Mussumeli) has a substantial concertante part, though Porter mixes his string parts equally well among the ensemble, especially in the throaty viola (Jodi Levitz). The Andante calmo that forms the centerpiece of the work does invoke a sense of vista and tender melancholy.  Its middle section becomes more fluid, only to return, da capo, to the quiet coda. The Allegro molto finale has a decisive momentum, a controlled sense of menace, with ostinati passages and a driven first violin part. Violin and cello engage in some moving colloquy, while the motion beneath churns ahead unabated. A feverish, effective movement, it well justifies the price of admission for the entire set.

The Quartet No. 6 (1937) opens with some bold counterpoint, the upper strings playing in unison, then breaking off for some upward, angular motives that might owe debts Bartok’s lyrical side. The cello enjoys some mellow figures until the opening series of themes recapitulates, in modified form. An extended middle section features the first violin in relatively songful terms. The Adagio movement bears a melancholy eloquence, replete with slide effects and slow counterpoint, like one of Bartok’s famous mesto movements. Its middle section evolves into an aggressive, polyphonic march. The finale, Allegro giocoso, indulges in folklike material over ostinati and pizzcato effects. The writing may be reminiscent of British chamber music, as from Warlock and Bridge.

The Quartet No. 8 (1950), also bears a moody relationship with Bartok, beginning as it does Lento, then moving to an anti-climactic Allegro that starts with energy but breaks down into recitative figures. The prevailing affect seems to suggest some sort of meditative exhaustion. What Porter exploits lies in the motivic and color variety among the stringed instruments. Those materials the first violin indulges in, concertante style, bear a vague relation to Brahms. The second movement, Adagio molto espessivo provides a five-minute meditation of some beauty and nobility of character.

The Ives Quartet, an SF Bay Area ensemble, performs the music of Quincy Porter (rec. 2008, 2009, and 2012) with a a fervor and rhetorical familiarity of the style to ensure that we approach these and the remaining volume of quartets with due seriousness.

—Gary Lemco

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