BARBER: String Quartet; Dover Beach; Serenade. COPLAND: Movement; Two Pieces. GERSHWIN: Lullaby

BARBER: String Quartet; Dover Beach; Serenade. COPLAND: Movement; Two Pieces.GERSHWIN: Lullaby. Alexander String Quartet; Nathaniel Watson, baritone. AMPLITUDE CLCD-2009 [DDD?]; 60:59. Produced by Foster Reed.

Here is an interesting assortment of music for string quartet, all written between 1919 and 1936 by three important American composers while they were between the ages of 18 and 28. The Barber works, of course, take up about two-thirds of the CD.  The Serenade is heard here in its original quartet version, rather than the more frequently heard string orchestra arrangement. Written in 1928, while Barber was an undergraduate at the Curtis Institute, it is notable for displaying at such a young age the refined, genteel sensibility so characteristic of the composer’s mature works. However, I have always found the musical content itself too tepid to be interesting.

Dover Beach, dating from age 21, is Barber’s first truly great work, a deeply moving setting that captures, interprets, personalizes the profoundly pessimistic sentiments of Matthew Arnold’s poem. Baritone Nathaniel Watson gives an excellent reading, but he is overwhelmed at times by the quartet, which seems a bit overbalanced in the recording. I remain especially fond of Barber’s own recording as baritone, done in 1935, four years after the piece was written (but not currently available on CD as far as I know). His intense, eloquent reading makes the experience of the work all the more intimate.

Barber’s String Quartet is really quite a strange work — thoroughly lyrical and subjective, with virtually no acknowledgement of the principles of Austro-Germanic classicism usually conceded to the genre, even by composers committed to a romantic aesthetic outlook. It is thus sui generis and one either accepts it on its own terms or not. Although its popularity as a quartet doesn’t rival that of its slow movement alone, the outer sections have a similarly poignant melodic appeal, and the work seems to be heard increasingly in its entirety. The Alexander Quartet, an American group in residence at San Francisco State University, provides a very solid performance, tight and edgy at the appropriate moments, but also generous and heartfelt when required.

The Copland pieces are interesting curiosities, but altogether peripheral to his output. What is called Movement is the remnant of an early (1922-23) quartet that was never completed. Few listeners would identify it as a work of Copland, as it displays a savagery more characteristic of Bloch or Bartok. Two Pieces were actually composed independently, in 1928 and 1923 respectively, and were brought together later on. The first is quite haunting, exhibiting the simple triadicism later associated with the composer, but the second piece is remarkably uninteresting. Again, the quartet provides very tight, solid performances.

Although Gershwin’s 1919 Lullaby wasn’t discovered until the 1960s, it certainly is heard frequently today. I suppose its dreamy quality is infectious, but it is awfully drawn out.

In summary, this Canadian disc is a worthwhile release for the interested listener.   I must, however, mention that in her program notes, the distinguished authority Vivian Perlis expresses the erroneous belief that Copland and Gershwin were born the same year.