by Walter Simmons
BARBER String Quartet (inc. original finale). Serenade. Dover Beach . HANSON String Quartet. Concerto da Camera . R. THOMPSON Alleluia (trans. Ying Qt) ● Ying St Qt; Randall Scarlata (bar) Adam Neiman (pn) ● SONO LUMINUS DSL-92166 (74:02) [Package includes Blu-ray surround sound audio disc in addition to standard CD]
This is the latest release from the remarkable Ying Quartet. As indicated in the headnote above, the package consists of not only a standard compact disc, but also a Blu-ray surround sound audio disc (the latter of which, unfortunately, I am not equipped to sample). Let me say at the outset that the sound quality of the conventional CD is extraordinarily full, rich, and clear.
The program of this new release comprises music by three American neo-romantic composers not generally known for their chamber music. That makes this rather unusual among string quartet recordings. In truth, all three composers are “old school” romantics, in that rather than impressing the listener with formal felicities and ingenuities, the music’s appeal relies chiefly on the sheer lovability of its material, while structural matters often fall by the wayside. Thus one must admit that this recording displays both Barber’s and Hanson’s formal weaknesses, although listeners who are sympathetic to their expressive objectives may be able to overlook such shortcomings.
Samuel Barber is represented here by three works: his early Serenade, Op. 1, performed regularly either as a string quartet or in a version for string orchestra; Dover Beach, Op. 3, which I consider to be Barber’s first truly great work; and the ever-popular String Quartet, Op. 11, in its final form, while also including the original third movement he had written for the work, but dropped several years later, in favor of the short recapitulation of the first movement with which he replaced it.
Barber composed the brief 8-minute Serenade when he was 18, and still a student at the Curtis Institute. It is a pale and moody piece, largely reflective in tone, with a central movement that almost calls early Berg to mind. But the final movement is a minuet whose material is rather trivial, resulting in a flimsy overall impression. But the performance by the Ying Quartet is as refined and impeccable as anyone might wish.
Barber composed his setting of Matthew Arnold’s well-known poem Dover Beach in 1931, when he was 21. The text clearly prompted a deeply sympathetic response from the composer, as its anxious, pessimistic view of the unknown future reverberated with his own melancholy temperament. The first recording of the work, made in 1935, featured the composer himself as baritone soloist with the Curtis String Quartet. That recording, still in print from various sources, is irreplaceable both for its historical significance and for its sensitivity and authenticity as a performance. However, there have been a number of fine modern recordings as well. This latest is one of them. Baritone Randall Scarlata has impressed me in the past, and his performance here is exquisite, although the mixing of the recording integrates the voice within the quartet, which makes the text hard to distinguish by ear alone.
The String Quartet has, of course, achieved the status of a “classic,” largely owing to the ubiquitous and widely-beloved slow movement, which, in its transcription for string orchestra, is known as the Adagio for Strings. The Yings do a beautiful job with this movement, moving it along with a duration of 6:52, which effectively mitigates the excessively lachrymose impression that it typically creates when milked for all it’s worth in the elegiac role that has become its fate. The first movement exemplifies Barber’s difficulties in generating a graceful, coherent musical form without the support of a text. Here is a clear case of irresistible material “covering” for a sequence of largely unrelated episodes, awkwardly strung together. Originally, Barber composed a finale of comparable duration to the previous movements, and the Quartet was performed in this form for several years. But the composer was never satisfied with this movement, although many others were quite happy with it. Finally, in 1938, Barber chucked the third movement, and substituted a 2-minute recapitulation of the first movement material, odd as that may be. But that has remained the final form of the quartet. But the Yings offer us the rare opportunity of hearing the original third movement, and—thanks to the programming capabilities of CD players—of hearing the entire quartet in either its original or revised form. For those who have wondered what that original finale was like, this provides an informative option. But though the movement is certainly competent and might have served its original function adequately, it would have diluted the work’s emotional intensity and dissipated much of the impact of the work as a whole.
Although Howard Hanson is often viewed as a narrow-minded reactionary, he was quite the precocious genius in his youth, earning his Bachelor’s Degree at barely 20, and joining the faculty at the College of the Pacific in San Jose, California, immediately upon graduation. There he was appointed Dean of the Conservatory of Fine Arts at the age of 22. The two works by which he is represented here exhibit even more obviously than does the Barber quartet the romantic tendency to favor episodic sequences dominated by mood and emotion over clear, concise structures. Hanson’s Concerto da Camera for piano and string quartet was composed in 1917, during his first year in San Jose. In one single movement, it is a 15-minute work that reflects a French–flavored hyperchromaticism—lush, passionate, rhapsodic, and dark-hued, with plenty of heart-throbbing appoggiaturas. Hanson’s ethos was always dominated by his strong religious feelings, and this work bears an inscription on the title page, “Unto Thee lift I up mine eyes O Thou that dwellest in the heavens,” a quotation that he requested appear on any program where the piece was performed. Yet I detect no connection between the music and this quotation, nor is there more than a vague suggestion of the mature Hanson style, aside from its characteristic richness of sonority, transparency of texture, and looseness of structure. A key motivic element is the “theme of youth” upon which Hanson built his Fantasy Variations some 35 years later. With its pan-European post-romanticism, it will certainly appeal to those listeners who have been enjoying the recent MSR recording of Vittorio Giannini’s Piano Quintet. There is another recording of the Concerto da Camera on Albany (TROY129), which features pianist Brian Preston with the Meliora Quartet. That is a perfectly adequate performance, but this new rendition by the Yings with pianist Adam Neiman displays more confidence and conviction, lending the work a greater sense of aesthetic weight than it conveys on the earlier recording. It is indeed rare for a work this obscure to inspire such a polished performance (although the aforementioned Giannini Quintet is another such example).
Hanson composed his sole String Quartet in 1923, while enjoying a European sojourn as the first American recipient of the Prix de Rome; this was around the same time the he wrote his Symphony No. 1, “Nordic.” Although the focus on abstract formal matters associated with the string quartet genre may seem diametrically opposed to the Hanson aesthetic, this somewhat strange work reveals most of the composer’s characteristic traits in abundance. The one-movement quartet is really a series of attitudes or emotional states—passages of stern oratory, visceral rhythmic ostinatos, fervent spiritual rapture, and warm affirmation—that follow one another, connected by awkward transitions, without any apparent meaningful logic, although there is some semblance of motivic development. But there is little counterpoint, and what there is is quite rudimentary. But loyal admirers of the composer’s music will find what they are looking for in what is probably the most polished and committed performance the work has ever had.
Along the lines of an encore, the Ying Quartet concludes this unusual program with their own transcription for string quartet of the Alleluia by Randall Thompson. Originally written for chorus, this short piece is probably the composer’s most popular and widely performed composition, evoking much the same sort of heartfelt exultation that one finds in the music of Hanson. It is lovely in this transcription.
This is a remarkable new release that will delight enthusiasts of American neo-romanticism.