LOEFFLER String Quartet in A minor. String Quintet in One Movement. Music for Four Stringed Instruments · DaVinci Qt · NAXOS 8.559077 (66:46)
Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935) was an Alsatian composer who came to the United States at the age of 20. A fine violinist who had studied with Joachim, he joined the Boston Symphony the following year, earning his living as a member of the violin section for the next two decades. He retired from the orchestra in 1903, turning to farming and raising horses, while remaining an active and respected figure in Boston’s musical life. An aristocratic and highly cultivated individual, he regarded composition as his primary occupation, and his works were held in high esteem by his contemporaries, enjoying performances by the world’s leading ensembles and conductors, including Mahler and Strauss. Perhaps his best-known work is A Pagan Poem, a lush rhapsody in the Impressionist style, which holds its own with other comparable works from the first decade of the 20thcentury. A fine recording conducted by Leopold Stokowski was available for many years.
This recent entry in Naxos’s American Classics series surveys Loeffler’s chamber music for strings. Included are one of his earliest compositions, a four-movement String Quartet in A minor, dating from 1889; a one-movement Quintet for three violins, viola, and cello, written five years later; and the three-movement Music for Four Stringed Instruments (really just another quartet) of 1917.
The early Quartet is a pleasant but not very stimulating example of 19th-century Germanic classicism, in a stylistic realm analogous to that of Dvorak. Most of the material is rather ordinary and predictable, with occasional turns of phrase that take one by surprise.
The 15-minute Quintet was actually composed while Dvorak was living in the United States. Although in this work the unexpected touches come a little more frequently, the work continues to adhere to a generally conventional Brahmsian syntax. Moments approaching real eloquence give way to routine passages bordering on the banal. First performed in Boston in 1895, the Quintet was well received by both audiences and critics.
An expression of far greater creative urgency is Music for Four Stringed Instruments, composed more than two decades later, and revised extensively during the following years. Written in memory of the first American aviator to be killed during World War I, who also happened to be the son of one of Loeffler’s close friends, the quartet draws its thematic material from Gregorian Chant. If the two earlier works descend from Germanic models, Music is thoroughly French in style and sensibility, with far greater harmonic, rhythmic, and textural fluidity. Tonality is also more fluid, with rapid modulations corresponding to frequent shifts of mood. The elegiac second movement, “Easter Sunday,” is the most beautiful music on the entire CD, and is based on the same plainchant that Paul Creston used in the third movement of his Third Symphony (Naxos 8.559034). This movement also entails the odd feature of requiring the cellist to change the instrument’s tuning several times while playing. The third movement is relatively long and more loosely structured, rather like a tone poem for string quartet. While an enjoyable finale, the movement fails to maintain the consistently high level of interest displayed by the first two movements.
The all-female DaVinci Quartet is based at the University of Denver. While not always the utmost in intonation or incisiveness of articulation, their performances represent the music with adequate precision and polish.