“Zia” = GABRIELA LENA FRANK: Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout; LOU HARRISON: String Quartet Set; JOSE EVANGELISTA: Spanish Garland, 12 Folk Melodies from Spain; REZA VALI: Nayshaboorak (Calligraphy No. 6); ELENA KATS-CHERNIN: Fast Blue Village 2 – Del Sol String Q. – Sono Luminus DSL-92164, 74:22 [Distr. by Naxos] (2/26/13) ****:
JEREMY BECK: String Quartets = String Quartet No. 4; String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2 (“Fathers and Sons”); String Quartet No. 5 – San Gabriel String Q. (Quartets 4 & 1) / Nevsky String Q. (Quartet 2) / Da Kappo String Q. (Quartet 5) – Innova 867, 63:03 [Distr. by Naxos] (8/24/13) ****:
These two discs show, in rather different ways, that the traditional string quartet still has legs. The first CD is a collection of pieces for string quartet none of which bears the moniker “string quartet.” Most of them are based on folk material, each from a different culture. The second CD collects four of Jeremy Beck’s five string quartets. Not only do they proudly bear the title “string quartet,” but they also embrace forms typically found in the classical string quartet. The sound world they create will be familiar, too: they’re clearly in the tradition of the great quartets of the twentieth century.
The album title Zia is explained by reference to the sun symbol of the Zia Indians, which appears on the state flag of New Mexico. According to the notes on the back of the album, the symbol “captures the adventurous spirit and global pulse of this CD.” And the music does pulse with the rhythmic vitality of folk music. In the first piece, Gabriela Frank’s Leyendas, three of its six movements are inspired by folk instruments of the Andes. Toyos recreates the sound of the Indian panpipes, while Tarqueada “is a forceful and fast number featuring the tarka, a heavy wooden duct flute that is blown harshly in order to split the tone.” The otherworldly delicacy of Toyos—all quiet slides and pizzicati, is followed by the wailing, thundering Tarqueada first violin providing the wails—the lower strings the thunder by way of tremolos and repeated chords in fourths and fifths. Panpipes return in Himna de Zampoñas, a panpipe consort whose sounds are captured in plucked and strummed strings and double stops, all of which are used to recreate tone production on the zampoã flute, an instrument that is “blown flatly so that the overtones ring out the top.” Among the remaining movements, Canto de Velerio, the song of the professional mourner hired for Andean funerals, is haunting, piercingly eerie, while Coqueteos, reproducing the love song of Peruvian troubadours known as romanceros, is cheeky, a bouncily syncopated musical come-on.
Lou Harrison’s String Quartet Set (notice that he sedulously avoids calling the piece simply “string quartet”) takes its cue from music of the Middle Ages and the French Baroque. The first piece has a studied archaism about it: it’s a set of variations on thirteenth-century Minnesinger Walter Von der Volgelweide’s song Nu alrêst le’ich mire werde. The third movement stays in the Middle Ages—it’s an estampie, a stomping dance that recalls Breughel the Elder’s painting The Peasant Dance. The following piece, Rondeaux, is a perfect bit of faux Baroque; for the last piece we take the musical excursion that many eighteenth-century European composers took, to Turkey, with its popular Janissary music. Of course, Harrison mimics the exotic sound of the Janissary band with more accuracy than any eighteenth-century musician ever did, down to a canny imitation of a Turkish drum. String Quartet Set is a wonderful crazy quilt of musical influences from a late composer I’ve come to admire a good deal in recent years.
Interestingly, the first couple movements of Evangelista’s Spanish Garland, based on twelve Spanish folk melodies, have a decidedly Eastern sound to them, presumably reflecting Moorish influence. Most of them have a truly alien exoticism; only the last of the set, to my untutored ears, sounds like what I think of as traditional Spanish music.
I find Reza Vali’s evocation of Persian music somewhat dour and repetitious, but the edgy syncopated Fast Blue Village of Elena Kats-Chernin is sheer fun. It was “created from material to be played by a set of robots designed by Roland Olbeter.” Yes, I can visualize a bunch of robots jiving to its herky-jerky rhythms.
So there you have it: a perky, brightly colored musical travelogue imaginatively assembled and brought to life with fervor by Del Sol String Quartet. Excellent audio thanks to the engineers of Skywalker Sound.
Kentucky-based composer Jeremy Beck is content to create more traditional-sound music for the medium of string quartet. I was reminded of the drive and dissonance of the Bartók Quartets, though I doubt that Beck is emulating the Hungarian composer. In fact, if you think Bartók when you hear the impulsive first movement of String Quartet No. 4, the slow movement will take you right back home to the American heartland; as Beck describes it in his notes, the movement “is in the character of a hymn or spiritual.” It’s music of quiet simplicity. Following the lead of composers from the nineteenth century onward, the quartet is cyclic in nature, material from the first two movements returning in the Moderato finale, which has an air of pained reflection.
The First Quartet was written all of seventeen years before, in 1982, while Beck was still a student, though he reworked it five years later, the premiere of this version given at Beck’s alma mater, the Mannes School of Music. The first movement starts in another reflective mood, but that soon gives way to an agitated Allegro vivace. A brief reprise of the opening movement sets up the Molto adagio second movement, featuring a double canon, a learned device that can’t mask the essential sadness of the music. The Presto finale dances along to syncopated rhythms. It’s more like an Allegro non troppo in this performance from the San Gabriel String Quartet, and frankly, I can’t imagine it taken at a faster clip. A true presto might be too startling a contrast to the preceding Molto adagio; in any event, the piece doesn’t hold together as well as the tightly argued Fourth Quartet.
Beck explains the subtitle, “Fathers and Sons,” of the Second Quartet: “The thematic construction of this composition should be considered like that of a guided kaleidoscope: ideas return in different guises and contexts which are all interrelated. . . . In other words, there are genetic and psychological connections between the two movements which may or may not reveal themselves under traditional theories of development. The two movements are part of a family and yet they are also autonomous, working in tandem as well as in opposition.” Hence there are a series of complicated interrelations between the first movement, “Fathers,” which has some of the elements of a traditional sonata-allegro, and the second movement, “Sons,” which combines elements of Scherzo and Rondo. Perhaps close listening with score in hand would reveal the interrelations that Beck touches on briefly in his notes. I didn’t have a score, and I was content to listen more casually, enjoying what I heard. This is bright, rhythmically alive music that engages the players in the sort of intimate conversation that is the hallmark of good quartet writing.
In fact, in String Quartet No. 5, Beck seems to want to make a simpler statement. The first movement is in a fairly straightforward ternary form with contrasting A and B sections. The B section, marked “with nostalgia,” is bluesy; with its strummed string figures, it reminds me of the “Blues” slow movement from Ravel’s Violin Sonata. The second movement is a quietly purposeful theme-and-variations piece, while the last movement is fast and fugal, with insistent syncopations and cross rhythms, an exciting way to ring down the curtain.
I found a lot to admire in these well-crafted pieces. They’re beautifully written for the four strings, and the players of three different ensembles—widely separated as to geography—seem to be equally moved by what Beck has given them to work with. The performances strike me as just about equally effective. As to the recordings, all were done in the studio and are mostly quite good. The recording of the Fourth, set down on the San Gabriel Quartet’s home turf of Alhambra, California, has a touch of glare and seems to have some studio-added reverb as well. I find the other recordings, from St. Petersburg (Nevsky String Quartet) and from Jeremy Beck’s neck of the woods, Louisville, to be preferable.