“Music of FRED LERDAHL, Vol. 3” = LERDAHL: String Quartets Nos. 1, 2, & 3 – Daedalus Q. – Bridge

“Music of FRED LERDAHL, Vol. 3” = LERDAHL: String Quartets Nos. 1, 2, & 3 – Daedalus Quartet – Bridge 9352, 67:53 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
So many American composers, so little time to get familiar with all of them! I’m sorry to say that Fred Lerdhal is one composer who has until now totally escaped my notice though he’s composed music for some pretty prominent performing groups, including the Juilliard Quartet, which commissioned the first of these three quartets, and the Pro Arte Quartet, which commissioned the other two. (However, Lerdahl was not able originally to follow through on the commission for the Third.) Conceived as a cycle, the three quartets were to represent a set of expanding variations on a single theme introduced in Quartet No. 1. The idea of expanding variations, or “spiral form,” stems from research that Lerdahl did for his 1982 book A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. In spiral form, “variations expand geometrically, each approximately three-fourths the length of the previous one. The next variation builds on the foundation of the previous one, yet how it develops within this framework is not predetermined.” Among other influences, Lerdahl formulated his variations technique from a study of “the transformational motivic processes of late Sibelius and the simultaneous tempo unfoldings of Carter.
The first variation in Quartet No. 1 is a single chord; the next variation expands to several chords, and so the variations proceed becoming ever more elaborate in terms of rhythm and coloration. This plan was to carry over into the subsequent quartets, with the second in the series composed of just two variations and the third, a single variation of some twenty minutes’ duration. However, difficulties with the composition of the Second Quartet forced Lerdahl to put off the completion of the cycle. Lerdahl’s dilemma was how to “bring the music back to the beginning of the spiral—that is, to the opening of the First Quartet—while at the same time continuing the expansion process.” The solution was to overlay the extended variation making up the Third Quartet with “distorted reminiscences from the first two quartets,” culminating in a reprise of the opening of the First Quartet. To realize this plan, it was necessary to revise the Second Quartet, one of the changes, presumably, being the inclusion of brief reminiscences of the First Quartet in line with the idea of spiral form. The Daedalus Quartet premiered the revised version of the quartet in 2011, thus bringing full circle a project that began with the Juilliard’s premiere of the First Quartet in 1978.
I suppose that if I had access to the scores of the quartets and were to study them pretty assiduously I’d be able to follow how Lerdahl implemented his grand plan for the triology. As it is, I, and most listeners, will just have the Daedalus Quartet’s performance of the works to go by. Fortunately, in practice Lerdahl’s music is not as formulaic as his technique would seem to imply. And while producer David Starobin, who wrote the notes for the recording, remarks that the First and Second Quartets have very different characters, the First inward while the Second is “outwardly passionate” and energetic, I’d say the two later quartets represent as well an artistic advance over the First. In terms of timbral effects and rhythmic variety, there’s more to hold the interest in the Second and Third Quartets. Elliott Carter comes to mind as you listen, but so, too, does Bartók: Lerdahl’s color palette seems to be influenced by Carter, but the rhythmic drive and flexibility suggest Bartók’s influence.
The Juilliard recorded the First Quartet, and that recording is still available, but given the Daedalus’ association with the Second Quartet and the Third (which the group commissioned and premiered in 2009), the current recording can probably be considered definitive. As usual, the quartet plays with verve and with beautiful tone production top to bottom, as important in this music as in Haydn, whom the group has successfully recorded for Bridge. The current disc is another fine achievement for the quartet and for their label.
—Lee Passarella

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