INTO THE LIGHT—KIRCHNER: String Quartet No. 1—WEBERN: Five Movements—BRITTEN: Three Divertimenti-—The Telegraph Quartet— Centaur CRC 3651, 40:15, ****:
I’ve had the pleasure of hearing the San Francisco based Telegraph Quartet in concert two times and they are a world class ensemble. Formed in 2013 and now the quartet-in-residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, they won the Naumburg Chamber Music Award in 2016 and the Grand Prize at the 2014 Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. Their performance last spring of the Ravel Quartet at a local chamber music series was simply unforgettable. So it was with great anticipation that I played this disc.
The longest work here on this short disc (40+ minutes) is the rarely heard String Quartet No. 1 (1949) by the American composer Leon Kirchner (1919-2009). Although Kirchner never went to Europe, his encounter with Arnold Schoenberg while studying at the University of California, Los Angeles heavily influenced his musical career. Yet, he never fell into the strait jacket of the serial technique that dominated American universities in the early and mid-20th century. In a 1990 interview Kirchner commented on twelve-tone ideology, “The result was a lot of music that was just praised for its twelve-tone-ness, and was really rather dull or boring in the sense of what music was really about – the expression of the human spirit.” John Adams was a pupil of Kirchner at Harvard. In his biography, Hallelujah Junction, he commented that Kirchner’s music was “hyper-expressive, emotionally hot and formally very much sui generis.” Stravinsky, Hindemith and Bartok influenced the composer. He taught at Harvard for 28 years (1961-89) and won the Pulitizer Prize for his String Quartet No. 3 for electronic tape and string quartet.
Kirchner’s First String Quartet has its roots in the spontaneity of jazz, and the emotional intensity, changing rhythms and powerfully dissonant sound world of Bartok. The abundant lyricism takes the form of cellular development. The drama of the first movement is powered by rapidly changing rhythms and juxtaposing different themes. Of the two adagios, the first is eerie and quiet, full of creatures of the night, a portent of the brief macabre Divertimento that follows. The concluding adagio begins with an introverted, lyrically painful mood that transitions to intense, dissonant heat, ending quietly. This is a compelling music, and the Telegraph Quartet’s rhythmic acuity, rapid tempos and intense lyricism is stunning.
Anton Webern was one of the triumvirate of composers (with Schoenberg and Berg) that formed the “Second Viennese School” that pioneered the avant-garde movement of the early 20th century with atonal, twelve-tone and serial music. Webern’s Funf Satz (Five Movements) for String Quartet of 1909 are filled with wisps of atonality and instrumental sounds that conjure up vivid moods. The first “Heftig bewegt” could be a prelude for Halloween. The first “Sehr langsam” is sad and very beautiful, in the vein of a Mahlerian dirge. “In zarter Bewegung” could be a vision of the landscape of the moon. Schoenberg called them “entire novels in a gesture.” The Telegraph Quartet plays them with the virtuosity of a group that loves modern music.
In the pantheon of composer’s great early works, Britten’s 3 Divertimenti ranks high on the list. He finished it in 1936, intended as part of his incomplete suite for string quartet. It was called ‘go play, boy, play’ intended as a series of movements based on characters of school friends. The serious opening “March” startles with glissandi and then becomes light-hearted, peppered with 20th century techniques that announces Britten as a distinctly modern composer. A tongue-in-cheek “Waltz” has some serious underpinnings and the frenetic “Burlesque” shows a witty composer at his best. The performance is intense, flawlessly executed and filled with the exuberance of youth that the composer intended.
The Telegraph Quartet is yet another brilliant young string quartet that makes chamber music so vital in today’s classical music performances. This disc showcases three unfamiliar 20th century works that modern quartet explorers will savor.
Link to more information about The Telegraph Quartet and this recording here: