IVES: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2 – Juilliard String Quartet – Columbia/Sony Classical

by | Oct 14, 2010 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

IVES: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2 – Juilliard String Quartet

Columbia/Sony Classical 77177, 48:15 ****:

The Juilliard String Quartet inscribed the two quartets of Charles Ives 28-29 November 1966 (Quartet No. 1) and 12 January 1967 (Quartet No. 2) at Columbia 30th Street Studio, NYC. Ives addressed the string quartet medium in May 1896 while he studied at Yale University. His studies with Horatio Parker caused his teacher to admonish young Ives that he “hogged too many of the keys” and failed to follow the standard structures of classical composition, despite the occasional influence of Beethoven or Mendelssohn on the Ives syntax.

The first public performance of the First Quartet took place in 1957, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Akin to Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, Ives co-opts those European procedures that suit him and discards the rest. The C Major opening movement of Quartet No. 1 advances a hymn tune contrapuntally, in a learned though relatively fluent style. The Allegro con spirito second movement adapts song tunes, like “Bringing in the Sheaves,” to its own ends. The harmonies love to find vagaries in modal chords or suspensions, and the third movement, Andante cantabile in G-flat Major might have a debt or two owed Dvorak. The score makes a reference to “A Revival Service,” and a sense of exaltation and inspiration does inform the writing for the first violin. The final movement–Allegro marziale–likes to gravitate into two keys, G and B. Both tonality and rhythms receive ambiguous or equivocal treatment, a presage of the bitonalities that infiltrate much of the later Ives.

The Second Quartet (1907-1913) sojourns into atonality, the instruments often antagonistic to each other. Impatient with sonata and ternary form, Ives conceives the piece as a progression from “discussion, argument, fight, shake hands, shut up–then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament.” The first movement, “Discussions,” may begin in relatively solemn earnest, but soon the Juilliard members break into dissonance and chromatic angst, with quotations from “Dixie,” “Marching Through Georgia,” and “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground,” each of which would claim the often cruel “theme” as Civil War.  The second movement, “Arguments,” strikes a fierce chord we know from Bartok, dense and agitated. Earl Carlyss, second violin, offers some sentimental strokes, only to hurled down in bitter mockery. Whether “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” mean to console us or bear the brunt of Ives’s irony is a matter of conjecture. The last movement, “The Call of the Mountains” must be the composer’s urge to transcendence, with hymn tunes abundant, like “Nearer My  God to Thee.” Whatever subjective firmament Ives contemplates, it certainly challenges our more “placid” preconceptions.

— Gary Lemco

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