PERSICHETTI String Quartets: 1-4

by Walter Simmons

PERSICHETTI String Quartets: 1-4 • Lydian String Quartet • CENTAUR CRC 2833 (76:44)

The creative legacy of Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987) comprises a large and extremely varied body of work, much of it still barely known to even the musically sophisticated public. Among his less frequently heard works are his four string quartets, which span the period 1939-1972. Fairly evenly spaced through out his productive life, they represent most facets of his enormous compositional range. However, not represented by the string quartets is his most ingratiating vein: the lively, diatonic, largely consonant sub-style found in his most popular works, many of those composed during the 1950s for wind ensemble and for piano solo. The aspects of his style represented by these string quartets are found in their most austere manifestations. Therefore, though most are masterful works, not to be overlooked by anyone with a serious interest in this extremely important but currently under-rated composer, they are definitely not the music one would select as an enticement for the general listener. 

The String Quartet No. 1 dates from 1939, when Persichetti was still seeking a distinctive creative voice of his own. Many of his works from this period, such as the Piano Sonata No. 2, Sonata for Violin Solo, and the Sonata for Two Pianos, are quite dissonant harmonically and attenuated tonally-—especially as viewed within the context of American music at that time-but without a depth of expression commensurate with the severity of the language. For me this is not a winning combination, and I find these pieces, including the String Quartet No. 1, to be among the composer’s less successful efforts. Two of the quartet’s four relatively short movements—the two faster ones—display a mercurial energy that is somewhat engaging. But the other two movements—almost Schoenbergian in their willful angularity—offer little appeal.

The String Quartet No. 2 is probably the easiest to approach, as its materials are largely modal and diatonic, although it is not by any means a romp. Composed in 1944, it may be viewed in the context of such contemporaneous pieces as the Piano Sonata No. 3 and the Symphony No. 3. These compositions are overtly “American-sounding” in their materials, and strongly influenced by devices and principles found in the music of Roy Harris—self-directed (autogenetic) formal designs rather than classical models, and much use of parallelism (organum). In addition to its generally lighter tone, the quartet includes some curious reminiscences from Beethoven, most obviously the Grosse Fuga. (Quotations—from his own works as well as those of others—form one of many cryptic aspects of Persichetti’s creative personality.)

The 1950s were Persichetti’s most fertile decade, and the period when his own distinctive compositional voice emerged most clearly. The 40-odd pieces from this decade may be readily divided into two sub-categories: those that are highly accessible, often intended to appeal to younger musicians, and those that are quite challenging. String Quartet No. 3, composed in 1959, falls into this latter group, along with the Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, Symphony No. 5, Piano Sonata No. 10, and Piano Quintet. (This Third Quartet even makes some explicit reference to the Fifth Symphony.) All five are multi-sectional works, each integrated into one movement based on a single theme usually introduced at the outset. These works—though often largely atonal and dense with significant substance—achieve a masterful fluidity and lucidity of contrapuntal motivic development that can capture a listener’s interest on first hearing, and sustain it through deeper study and analysis. In fact, these five works are arguably Persichetti’s greatest compositions, although among them, the Quartet No. 3 is probably the most austere and difficult to penetrate, owing to its 12-tone theme, its often glassy sonorities, and the abstraction of the medium. But it is a brilliant work—one that rewards attentive and repeated listening; it is probably my own favorite among Persichetti’s string quartets. 

The Quartet No. 4 dates from 1972, when Persichetti was seeking to embrace a number of the newer compositional devices appearing in the works of younger composers, and integrate them into his vast musical language. These pieces elevate such elements as gesture and texture to the status of musical ideas, subject to their own intensive development, while avoiding discernible tonality except in the most isolated—although often quite structurally significant—moments. This was also a time when Persichetti was pre-occupied with his series of Parables, 25 pieces that he defined enigmatically as “non-programmatic musical essays about a single germinal idea. They convey a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison or analogies.” Most of the Parables are short studies written for monophonic instruments, but some are larger works for fuller forces. And some of these bear other designations, their inclusion among the Parables indicated by subtitle. For example, Persichetti’s sole opera, The Sibyl, is subtitled, “Parable XX.” Similarly, the String Quartet No. 4, completed the same year as the frequently-played Parable IX for band, is subtitled, “Parable X.” In a sense this work is a conceptual expansion of the previous quartet, relying less completely on linear contrapuntal development, while embracing texture and gesture as primary elements, as noted above, often exhibiting contrapuntal relationships of their own. Though its rarefied, ethereal sonorities, fragmentary textures, and lack of perceptible tonality may seem somewhat forbidding upon initial acquaintance, Persichetti usually maintains a discernible metrical pulse that functions as an internal anchor, while the ongoing developmental processes remain lucid and coherent.

To its credit, Centaur does not bill this new release as “First Recordings.” Presumably they are aware that 30 years ago Persichetti’s four string quartets were issued on a two-LP set that featured the New Art String Quartet, then in residence at Arizona State University. This was a beautifully performed and handsomely packaged and annotated set, produced by composer David Cohen (who had been a student of Persichetti) and was available only from Arizona State directly. Unfortunately that set probably found its way into only a handful of collections-I’ve never met anyone who even knew of it! I’ve often thought that those recordings ought to be reissued on CD, what with the broader means of dissemination available today via the Internet. Perhaps this new Centaur release pre-empts the need for such a reissue. There is no question but that the Lydian String Quartet plays with considerably more polish, precision, and confidence, and the quality of recording is significantly superior as well. However, in an ideal world, I’d still like to see the Arizona set reissued, simply as another-and quite respectable-take on the music. Perhaps of lesser importance to most listeners, Cohen’s program notes were more astute than those by the Lydian’s first-violinist Daniel Stepner; and there is an excellent photo of the composer gracing the Arizona jacket, while Centaur offers no photo of Persichetti.