G. Gould String Quartet. E. Macmillan String Quartet in C minor. Two Sketches. Quator Alcan

by Walter Simmons

G. GOULD String Quartet. E. MACMILLAN String Quartet in C minor. Two Sketches ● Quatuor Alcan ● ATMA CLASSIQUE ACD2 2596 (67:03)

This recent release is most fascinating in concept: two Canadian string quartets, written 30 years apart, each when its respective composer was in his early 20s, and each inhabiting a style that was quite passé at the time of its composition. But there the similarities end. There is nothing wrong with embracing an ultra-conservative idiom. However, if one chooses a well-worn stylistic path as a means of self-expression, then one had better bring to it a strikingly individual personality, or a strong sense of conviction, in order to avoid superfluous redundancy. One of these works accomplishes this successfully, while the other does not.

Glenn Gould was a figure who typically engendered—and still does—strong, often extreme feelings. Most cultivated listeners will acknowledge his extraordinary talent; many revere at least some of his recordings of mainstream repertoire—especially Bach—although the general consensus is that on the whole his recorded performances were eccentric in conception and erratic in interpretive legitimacy (not that that’s so terrible, when compared with being routine and boring). But few would question his extraordinary musical intelligence and his phenomenal technical mastery as a pianist. However, although he is quoted as having described himself as “a composer who plays the piano,” he actually completed very few pieces of his own. The most ambitious is the one he designated as his Opus 1, the String Quartet offered here—a single movement more than half an hour in duration. Columbia Masterworks released a recording of the work in 1960, in a performance by the Symphonia Quartet, an ensemble drawn from the Cleveland Orchestra. There is no avoiding the fact that the preponderance of critical opinion concerning this work was overwhelmingly negative at the time it appeared—almost as if those who resented his celebrity but could never deny his talent now felt free to heap ridicule and contempt on him for venturing into an area outside his acknowledged purview. (This is not an uncommon response to performers who dare to try their hands at composition. Even the annotator of this new recording, Irène Brisson, cannot resist a few patronizing comments.) However, I snatched up that LP—largely out of curiosity—shortly after it was released, and fell in love with the work immediately. Almost 50 years later, I still find it immensely rewarding.

Composed during the period 1953-55, the quartet embraces the language of turn-of-the-century Austro-Germanic late-romanticism, and is a masterpiece of concentrated motivic development, densely woven contrapuntal integration, and fluid shifts of mood, which I find compelling from beginning to end. There is nothing to patronize here. In fact, if it were presented as a hitherto unknown quartet by Zemlinsky, composed during his maturity, I believe that it would be hailed as a great discovery. The performance on that early recording not only suffered from wayward intonation, but also tended to emphasize the work’s lugubrious tendencies. I used to describe the quartet as something of a cross between Schoenberg’s Quartet No. 1, Op. 7, and Strauss’s Metamorphosen (two works that are themselves controversial enough). However, this new recording by the Quebec-based Alcan Quartet not only offers greater rhythmic precision and accuracy of intonation, but is also quicker by several minutes and quite a bit lighter in character. As a result I am prompted to add one of Strauss’s less somber offerings to the hypothetical hybrid stew. Although the technical precision of this performance is much appreciated, I do find the faster tempos to verge on the perfunctory at times, while the more light-hearted conception misses some of the dramatic intensity that is an important aspect of the work.

Sir Ernest MacMillan (1893-1973) was a distinguished and highly respected figure in Canadian musical life, as both a conductor and a composer. In fact, he was on the podium in 1947, leading the Toronto Symphony, when a 15-year-old Glenn Gould gave his first major performance with an orchestra. MacMillan composed his four-movement quartet in 1914, revising it in 1921. However, the idiom it adopts might be described as the generic language  of Western and Central Europe circa 1885, i.e., Elgar at his least inspired, with harmonic infusions from the likes of Fauré and Chausson. The work opens with a richly generous melodic warmth that offers an ingratiating invitation to the listener. However, it does not sustain one’s interest for very long. Not only is its formal design utterly conventional and predictable, according to conservative academic expectations, but its range of expression never ventures beyond a comfortable sense of emotional propriety. There is an urgency and intensity to the Gould that is utterly absent from the MacMillan.

As filler the CD concludes with Two Sketches—short pieces based on French-Canadian folktunes, composed in 1927. The first of these is quite beautiful, and more intriguing than anything in the string quartet just described.