ROSNER: String Quartet No. 4. SWACK: String Quartet No. 4. TRIMBLE: String Quartet No. 1. Alorian Quartet; Sierra Quartet; Ondine Quartet. OPUS ONE–150 CD [DDD]; 69:05. Produced by Max Schubel. (Available from Opus One, Box 604, Greenville, Maine 04441)
This release represents quite an accomplishment, the culmination of a project, master-minded by the bold and indefatigable champion of neglected American music Max Schubel, and undertaken early in 1990 in conjunction with the Oberlin Conservatory. Schubel offered three student quartets, each in existence only a year or two, the opportunity to study, perform and record three challenging, unfamiliar American works. Contrary to what one might have expected, each of the performances is quite impressive, a credit to Schubel’s vision as well as to the talents, energy, and dedication of the Oberlin students and participating faculty who coached them. The result makes available to the public three hitherto unknown but worthwhile compositions.
The most striking of these works is the extraordinary Quartet No.4 by Arnold Rosner (see article elsewhere in this issue). Composed in 1972, this highly personal work carries to powerful extremes Rosner’s distinctive manner of turning ancient forms and devices to contemporary expressive purposes. The first movement is a stark French overture, with a tempestuous alleqro relieved only by brief oases of icy calm. The second movement is one of Rosner’s most original and ingenious creations, based on the medieval form known as an isorhythmic motet. A solemn, eight-bar rhythmic pattern involving each instrument is reiterated, with different pitches at each recurrence. Rosner has constructed his ostinato with overlapping entrances and irregular groupings so that the result is gripping and hypnotic, as passages of slashing violence are suddenly interrupted by moments of striking purity. The third and final movement is a grueling passacaglia (in duple meter, however) that builds to a harrowing yet ecstatic climax before receding into calm resignation. The Quartet No.4 is one of Rosner’s most fully realized works — tightly concentrated both expressively and motivically. Its virile, full-bodied — at times aggressively violent–use of the quartet medium may bring Shostakovich to mind, while its eerie serenity and sense of timeless spirituality may remind others of Arvo Part. Yet it maintains a stylistic consistency throughout. In fact, its prevailing tone of grim intensity, its resolute, unvarying D-minor tonality, and its two successive slow movements — each based on a variation form — may be “too much” (in the Allan Pettersson sense) for some listeners, while others will find its emotional urgency arresting and compelling. The four young ladies who comprise the Alorian Quartet dig into this uncompromisingly intense work with remarkable precision and unflagging energy.
Also worthy of acquaintance is the Quartet No.4, completed in 1990, by Irwin Swack. Swack, born in Ohio in 1919, studied composition with both Cowell and Giannini. His quartet is a complex, serious work in neoromantic style that suggests Bartok, Shostakovich and, especially, Barber, though it contains nothing overtly derivative. It is a rather lengthy and discursive work, requiring several hearings before its sense of shape and direction begin to emerge. However, its expressive content is attractive, inviting greater familiarity. Its sense of structural waywardness may be partially due to the performance: The quartet — perhaps the least polished of the three groups showcased here — appear not to have digested the work themselves sufficiently to project its meaning and structure with clarity.
Lester Trimble was respected and admired as a perceptive critic and a distinguished spokesman for contemporary composers as much as — or more than — he was as a composer. His Quartet No. 1, composed in 1949 while he was studying with Nikolai Lopatnikoff, is one of the earliest works he listed in his official oeuvre. It is a vigorous neoclassical work strongly reminiscent of Hindemith but displaying impressive compositional mastery. However, its expressive content is too unremittingly cool and dry for my taste, despite the committed, energetic performance of the Ondine Quartet.
The CD is well produced and recorded. My only complaint is that only three cue points are provided — one for each work — so that access to individual movements is problematical.