BARBER: Dover Beach. String Quartet. ROCHBERG: String Quartet No. 7. Leslie Guinn, baritone; Concord String Quartet. NONESUCH 78017, produced by Marc J. Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz, $8.98.
Samuel Barber’s setting of Dover Beach, composed when he was 21, is one of his most flawless creations. The music reflects eloquently the high-minded pessimism of Matthew Arnold’s poem, conveying a gloomy Victorian atmosphere quite congenial to the young composer’s aristocratic but highly sensitive temperament. Four years later, in 1935, Barber, who himself had a flexible, rather light-toned baritone, recorded the work for RCA, with the Curtis String Quartet. Aside from its obvious historical interest, this early recording is a rewarding musical document, offering a highly expressive, meticulously executed rendition. By comparison, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recording with the Juilliard Quartet, done in the late-’60s, is disappointingly rigid and constrained. Nonesuch’s release, featuring baritone Leslie Guion, is the first new recording to appear since then. Unfortunately, despite superb string playing from the Concord Quartet, this one is not really any better. Guinn’s expression seems somewhat constricted, not unlike Fischer-Dieskau’s, offering little in the way of interpretive nuance. Part of the problem may be the recorded balance between baritone and strings: The voice is a bit buried in the quartet sonority, so that the text does not project fully.
Fortunately, New World Records has reissued the early Barber recording (NW 229) and I recommend that disc without hesitation. Not only is this definitive performance indispensable to all who are interested in Barber’s music, in the 20th-century art song, or American music in general, but the disc also contains the composer’s lovely Melodies Passagères sung by Pierre Bemac, with Francis Poulenc (!) at the piano, and a group of 12 fine songs by Ned Rorem, enhanced by New World Records’ comprehensive annotation.
To return to the new Nonesuch release, the Concord Quartet’s performance of Barber’s String Quartet is excellent. In both form and substance, the work is one of the most essentially romantic string quartets ever written, relying almost exclusively on the intrinsic beauty of its musical material and on the effectiveness of its discursive impulses. Fortunately, the material is unfailingly beautiful and the composer’s intuitions are sound, guiding it coherently and concisely so that its lack of a strong structural foundation does not detract from its appeal. This Concord performance is superior to any I have ever heard — much better than the Cleveland Quartet’s 1976 RCA recording, which suffered from surprisingly sour intonation. True, the Concord group does rush the Adagio a bit, but everything else about it is quite impressive — especially the rich tonal balance of the chordal sonorities.
In his String Quartet No. 7, George Rochberg features the poetry of his son, Paul, whose premature death in 1964 precipitated the composer’s abandonment of the serial style he had been cultivating. However, this 1979 quartet seems to recall a Viennese-influenced expressionism far more than do most of Rochberg’s recent, highly publicized endeavors in historical eclecticism. Paul Rochberg’s dream-like poems carry some powerful images, and his father’s astringent music is appropriate and skillfully — even artfully — crafted. But its consistent angularity and austerity are neither inviting nor ingratiating, limiting the work’s appeal to that small group of listeners who enjoy post-Bergian vocal music. As in the Barber works, the Concord Quartet performs superbly, while baritone Guinn’s contribution, though adequate, is less impressive. Again, I am not happy with the voice/quartet balance in the recording, although here perhaps Rochberg’s statement that the baritone is to be viewed as an equal member of the ensemble can be used to justify its lack of sonic prominence. Yet I do not see the point of setting words if they are not to be aurally distinguishable.
Surfaces are fair, with a tendency toward shatter at peaks.