“The American Album” = Quartets of DVORAK, GRIFFES, BARBER – Cypress Q.

by | Nov 5, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

“The American Album” = DVOŘÁK: String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96, “Amerian”; CHARLES TOMLINSON GRIFFES: Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes; BARBER: String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 11 – Cypress String Quartet – Cypress Performing Arts Association [no rec. number], 52:13 ***1/2:
In the notes to this recording, Marc Geelhoed tries to justify the title of this album from the Cypress String Quartet but is only partly convincing. It makes some sense, of course, to include Dvořàk’s American Quartet even if it was written by a Czech. After all, it’s called American not simply because Dvořàk wrote it in this country but because, according to the composer, he tried to capture the experience of his stay here through the use of American folk music. However, as in the American String Quintet and New World Symphony, the themes are probably imitation rather than actual folk melodies, made convincing through the use of the folksy pentatonic scale. None of them have been traced to existing sources, and in fact some commentators say the melodies don’t sound particularly American and that the works don’t sound all that different from pieces in which Dvořàk imitates Bohemian folk music. One thing is certain, however: these works and Dvořàk’s injunction to American composers to find inspiration in native musical sources challenged twentieth-century composers such as Griffes to do just that. While Dvořàk’s wonderfully plaintive second movement sounds like an Indian song, Griffes’ Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes (1919) uses actual Chippewa and Hopi melodies.
Through some musical detective work, members of the Cypress Quartet have identified the theme of the first sketch as the “Chippewa Farewell Song,” while the theme of the second “is part of a Hopi festival.” The first sketch has the faint whiff of Impressionism that was Griffes’ stock in trade until he began, late in his tragically short life, to explore other musical influences, including Native American. Like the scherzo of Dvořàk’s American String Quintet—inspired by a dance performed by members of the Kickapoo tribe who visited the Czech immigrant community of Spillville, Iowa, while the composer was summering there in 1893—Griffes’ second sketch is a lively syncopated dance, this one complete with pizzicatos imitating Indian drums. The four players toss fragments of the dance around in a frenzied game of musical catch; this is very skillful quartet writing. The Cypress String Quartet really makes it zip along, as well as smile: a perfect rendering of Griffes’ Allegro giocoso.
While the Barber Quartet may be, as Marc Geelhoed writes, quintessentially American, as he concedes that quality derives from factors other than the use of native musical material. It’s great to hear the work that spawned Barber’s most famous piece, the Adagio for Strings, and the Quartet is hardly over-recorded, especially in such a dynamic performance as this one, but I think the Cypress Quartet should have expanded on their theme of the use of indigenous music in the string quartet. It would have been nice to hear a work in which African-American motifs are used. And programming a more contemporary piece, perhaps by an African-American or Native American composer, would have increased the relevance of the disc, as well as the playing time, which is skimpy. I certainly don’t think it would have scared away prospective buyers.
As it is, we have a very good, very American reading of the American Quartet and an excellent Barber Quartet, but the star of the program, for me, is the far less familiar ten-minute-long Griffes’ piece. As I suggest, the performance of the American Quartet has an American brashness to it that is bracing. Tempi of the outer movements and scherzo are fast, lending a slightly mechanical feeling to parts of the first movement. Oddly, the trio of the scherzo drags more than a little, and this is the one disappointment in the performance for me. The slow movement, though, is movingly played, and on points this is a very decent reading. However, with all the first-rate recordings of the American Quartet available (my favorite being the Hagen Quartet’s on DGG), the Cypress String Quartet’s performance of the flagship work on their recording just isn’t fine enough to make this an indispensable disc.
—Lee Passarella

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