IVES: String Quartets 1 and 2, and Scherzo – Blair String Quartet – Naxos

by | Dec 28, 2006 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

IVES: String Quartets 1 and 2, and Scherzo – Blair String Quartet – Naxos 8.559178 50:19 ****:

The Blair String Quartet, in an earlier (1987) line-up with a different cellist, elicited one of my favorite silly bits of music criticism (from The New York Times no less!): “The heavenly close of the third movement from Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15 in A minor (Op. 132) seemed to stretch on for an eternity.” Yes, this was a complaint.

In residence at the Blair School of Music of Vanderbilt University (its members are violinists Christian Teal and Cornelia Heard, violist John Kochanowski and cellist Felix Wang), the Blair is one of those splendid quartets that labors in the cause of music in general and American music in particular and yet manages to fly under the radar screen of most of the music loving public.

The Quartet has championed music by contemporary American composers, including works written for them by Morton Subotnick, George Tsontakis, Ellsworth Milburn, Michael Alec Rose, Rodney Lister, and Michael Kurek. The ensemble has worked with Elliott Carter, Alan Hovhaness, John Harbison, George Rochberg, Ezra Laderman, Leon Kirchner, Steven Mackey, and Steven Stucky. The Quintet for Banjo and String Quartet, composed for the quartet by Edgar Meyer and Bela Fleck, has been featured nationally on the PBS series, Lonesome Pine Special, and remains in their touring repertoire.

The quartet has presented cycles of the complete quartets of Beethoven and Bartok. The group has appeared with many renowned artists including pianists Lee Luvisi, Rolf Gothoni (1993 Gilmore Artist), David Owen Norris (1991 Gilmore Artist), Christopher Taylor, Frederic Chiu, Enid Katahn, Craig Nies, Amy Dorfman; clarinetists James Campbell and David Krakauer; violinist Joseph Silverstein; violists Walter Trampler and Samuel Rhodes; cellist Norman Fischer; bassist Edgar Meyer; and virtuoso of the banjo, Bela Fleck.

The quartet has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Southern Arts Federation, the Tennessee Arts Commission and Chamber Music America’s C. Michael Paul Residency Program.

And yet they have only two recordings in the catalog! (The Emerson, bless their hearts, have more than 40.)

So, thanks to Naxos for presenting these involved, elegant and knowing performances of Charles Ives’ two magnificent and magnificently diverse quartets, the first of which is an accessible delight and the second a far less congenial piece, described by the composer as follows: “Four men–converse, discuss, argue–fight, shake hands, shut up–then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament.”

The good-ish sound, which could use some extra warmth and sense of space, has a homespun Ivesian sensibility to it. Excellent liner notes by Jim Lovensheimer. Normally, I would not complain about 50 minutes playing time on a CD being ungenerous, but in this case, I would have liked to hear more of the Blair even though they may have run out of Ives.

– Laurence Vittes

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