“Quadrants – Modern String Quartets” = MARIE INCONTRERA: Limbic Breath; MICHAEL G. CUNNINGHAM: String Quartet No. 5; ALAN BEELER: Quartet 2000; String Quartet No. 2; ULF GRAHN: The Timeless Lines of Time; VIRGIL THOMSON: String Quartet No. 1 – Boston String Quartet/New England String Q./Moravian Philharmonic Ch. Players/Boston Composer String Q. – Navona Records NV5883 (Distr. by Naxos), 65:28 ****:
Fans of excellent string quartet playing will definitely enjoy this album and should not be dissuaded by the header, “Modern String Quartets.” There is little no angular, dissonant and unnecessarily cerebral music her. In fact, the Thomson Quartet, from 1932, barely qualifies as contemporary music. All of these works are non-traditional and quite a bit off the beaten path but are fascinating and entertaining pieces played remarkably well.
The collection opens in attention getting fashion, with Limbic Breath by Marie Incontrera, is a short but languid work filled with a sort of meditative feel that certainly gets one’s attention. This interesting work calls for more. It is almost too brief to get a full view of this composer who calls herself a “wayward ballerina.”
I have been a fan of Michael G. Cunningham for awhile. He has written many works for strings and has a lush, polytonal, ‘poly-sonic’ approach to texture that I really enjoy. The three movement String Quartet No. 5 is very emotional and intense throughout and, I think, a highlight of this collection.
There are two selections by Alan Beeler, of Kentucky. I have heard his String Quartet No.2 before and it is complex four movement work that still occupies less than ten minutes of listening. Quartet 2000 is based on a set of piano variations by the composer. According to the composer’s notes, all twelve pitches in the traditional chromatic scale are served as focal points but the work is not “serial” in any way. I felt that the Beeler works are, arguably, the most complex in this set and the most “abstract” but still make for fascinating listening.
Ulf Grahn is an interesting figure. The Swedish composer has lived in the United States for some time now and is also trained in economics. The Timeless Lines of Time is a very unusual piece in that, in this case, it is actually a cello quartet. Grahn envisioned the work, originally, as a piece for four violas da gamba and owes some stylistic heritage to the works of Marin Marais. I found this work to be another highlight of the disc, for me, offering a very strangely compelling sound that is both “modern” and antiquated.
The Thomson Quartet No. 1 is, in many ways, vintage Virgil Thomson with an opening them and an overall sound that is quite “American” in its feel. Thomson wrote many works during the Depression era, and shortly beyond, that evoke an upbeat and nationalistic sound. This was, of course, the composer’s first published foray into string quartet music work. Although this piece is still the “outlier” in this collection, it makes for an interesting and satisfying closer to this set.
All performances in this collection are topnotch and this is, all and all, a very interesting look at string quartet writing over the past seventy years or so. I think all string fans would enjoy this. I do think the works that would please the most are the Cunningham, Grahn and, of course, the Virgil Thomson. It might be interesting for Navona to release an album of string quartets or other chamber forms, that are a little “tighter” thematically – maybe a “new” New England School or music by living émigrés (something like that) There are a couple of timing differences between those listed on the labeling and those in actual duration (the Grahn being an example). These are suggestions and quibbles, though. Navona continues to provide fascinating pieces that might not get heard otherwise and in very complete, interactive packaging.