American Romantics = DVORAK: String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96 “American”;
SIROTA: Quartet No. 2 “American Pilgrimage”; BARBER: Adagio for Strings, Op. 11 – American String Quartet – 58:26 (9/5/18) [mkiartists.com] ****:
These recorded performances (16 March 2011; the Dvorak 5 June 2017) mean to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the American String Quartet—Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, violins; Daniel Avshalomov, viola; Wolfram Koessel, cello—specifically by featuring works that embrace the “national” experience as Dvorak had defined it for our composers, to avoid the imitation of European models. The so-called “American” Quartet in F Major (1893) came to quick fruition in the course of seventy-two hours in Spillville, Iowa. The use of pentatonic scales, Native American rhythmic motives, and the particular color of the viola make the first movement Allegro, ma non troppo immediately gripping. In the momentum of its lyric and vivid energies, Dvorak finds room for some strict counterpoint in the development. The famous Lento has the violin in a melody set above an undulating bass line. The cello assumes the duties of poignant lyricism. The pulsations and mixed colors combine to create an extremely affecting moment in chamber music literature. The melody has tremolando effects to accompany its last page. The Molto vivace scherzo utilizes Dvorak’s patented contrast between the major and minor modes of F. A lively dance in rondo form, the music pays homage to a scarlet tanager which had made a nest outside of Dvorak’s home window. The Finale: Vivace, ma non troppo exploits another rondo form, this time built upon both a folk dance and a chorale that recalls a Czech hymn, the latter’s giving some sense of Dvorak’s potent homesickness. The sonic image, captured by vivid microphone placement from Judith Sherman, endows the performance with gracious “presence.”
The American String Quartet commissioned composer Robert Sirota to conceive a second string quartet that would celebrate “the beauty, pathos, and variety of both our geography and culture,” what the composer himself calls “a glimpse of the epic quality of our country.” The present performance marks the world premiere. In four movements, the piece American Pilgrimage depicts four diurnal moments: Morning: Waldo County, Maine; Mid-day: Mother Emanuel Church, Charleston, South Carolina; Sunset: High Desert, Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Evening: Manhattan. Utilizing somewhat modal and discordant harmony reminiscent of Bartok and Ligeti, the styles embrace Protestant doxology, Gospel, Native American song, and jazz. I cannot ascribe to Sirota any great melodic gift. The Maine sequence seems built on passing, short kernels, so I might claim Alban Berg as a possible influence. Plucked strings open Mid-day, somewhat reminiscent of Britten’s A Simple Symphony cross-bred with banjo effects. The high harmonics and tremolos likely add a spiritual dimension. We might be witness to a variant on “We Shall Gather at the River.” Sunset exploits what sound like scordatura effects, the strings pitched higher against a high pedal. Hazy motion defies most of this movement. The lower voices do have something to say while the upper voice repeats a four-note phrase and its sequences. A “fate” motif? The last movement, Evening, is the longest. Busy with whirling and syncopated figures, this evocation of Manhattan has passing references to Dvorak—who lived in Manhattan—and to jazz. First violin Winograd has some concertante moments, and viola Avshalomov some lyric impulses. Elements of warmth and sincerity emerge, but I still cannot grant Sirota the epithet “melodist.”
Barber’s 1936 Adagio derives from his Op. 11 String Quartet. People forget that its origin lies in a Concerto grosso of Torelli. Musically, the work remains relatively simple: a melody that ascends and repeats, often in its own inversion. Barber expands the phrase until its tension reaches a climax, and the music recedes into its primary harmonic basis. That Barber varies the harmonic mix at each of the melody’s repeats keeps our interest; of course, the music’s associations with various funereal events makes it socially relevant. Wolfram Koessel’s cello in this version proves poignant.