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Alvin Singleton (b. 1940)
String Quartet No.1 (1967)
Secret Desire to be Black (String Quartet No.2) (1988)
Somehow We Can (String Quartet No.3) (1994)
Hallelujah Anyhow (String Quartet No.4) (2019)
Momenta Quartet
rec. 2021, Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, USA
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80832-2 [60]

To come across a contemporary composer previously unknown to me is always a bitter sweet moment. Mingled with the excitement of new discovery is regret that the maker of the music I am listening to is so little known. Alvin Singleton has, I’m sure, his passionate advocates but even they would be minded to agree that he deserves to be much better known. Indeed, on the strength of his second string quartet alone, he merits the sort of fame reserved for the likes of Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass.

I will leave to others better qualified than I to speculate how much race has played a part in this relative neglect though such thoughts should be balanced by our era’s shocking neglect of its composers regardless of who they are. Given that everyone has taken up the forgotten music of Florence Price, is it too much to hope that Singleton is the next beneficiary of this corrective enthusiasm? The Momenta Quartet and New World Records are to be thanked for getting the ball rolling in such fine style. It helps to give a measure of the quality of Singleton’s quartet output having it gathered together on one disc. Too often new commissions gather dust on shelves after an initial flurry of performances so it can be difficult to gauge a composer’s achievement. This recording is a timely and deeply persuasive corrective.

There are composers whose greatness comes in the form of music that is understandably hard for audiences to immediately warm to – but Singleton is decidedly not one of those. His scores have great depths – I know, I have listened to this record a lot! – but even at first listen they grab hold of the listener. This is music with something to say and the means to say it. I have recently been reviewing Shostakovich quartets and whilst Singleton has his own distinctive voice and is nowhere near as austere as the Russian master there is a similar sense of the American extending the great classic quartet tradition in much the same way.

This is music that is passionate, melodic, full of pathos and energy. It is not backward looking even if its techniques are mainstream. As I have indicated already, the second quartet is the peach of the set but the first quartet, the only one without a title, isn’t far behind. I suspect in 1967 it sounded very unfashionable but the longer view of history allows us to enjoy its manifold merits. The aching theme on the cello that sounds through the opening is a good sampler of Singleton’s art. It is at once modern and ageless. The mood is severe but dripping with poignancy.

Later at the climactic point of the third quartet, a vision of a transfigured spiritual emerges out of that work’s pregnant silences and it was at this point that I realised how much and how subtly Singleton’s melodic sense has been influenced, or perhaps shadowed might be an appropriate word, by that great musical tradition of Black America. It should be stressed that this tradition has been fully absorbed into Singleton’s musical bloodstream in much the same way as Bartók took in Hungarian or Vaughan Williams English folk music. The first two Bartók quartets came to mind listening to this first quartet. There is a similar charisma. I had to remind myself that this is actually a pretty gritty, tightly organised piece because it is such a gripping listen.

Singleton’s own voice, already clearly audible in the first quartet through its influences, is fully formed in the second. All of his quartets are single movement works that last about a quarter of an hour. The influence of the late Beethoven quartets is evident in all of them but becomes more overt in the later two. Structurally, the second quartet consists of an extended first half which gathers movement and nervous energy before a single shattering chord introduces a more meditative slowly drawn out close. This description does scant justice to the devastating emotional experience of listening to this quartet. The manner in which Singleton builds tension throughout is spellbinding.

Inspired by the work’s title, Secret Desire to be Black, I found myself imagining the conflict between the emotional, melodic elements and the more mechanistic music that starts to dominate as dramatising the struggle between African Americans and the structures of a racist state. Musically it is very different but it is a comparable emotional experience to listening to the similar confrontation in the Shostakovich eighth quartet. The forces of oppression are stopped in their tracks, in the quartet at least even if sadly not in real life, by the strange calm of the final section of the quartet where the ghosts of spirituals seem to hover behind the twittering, ill at ease musical texture. This shorter second half of the work reverses the process of the first with the mechanistic effects giving way to the melodic, like an understated but defiant kind of hope.

The third quartet I found the toughest nut to crack even though it seems to be the best known and most successful of the four – though such ideas of popularity are all relative. It is built of alternating flurries of repeated notes and notes held in long slow phrases. These two are interspersed with meditative silences. As the liner notes point out, these long held silences make the bursts of energy when they erupt seem even louder until finally out of one of them emerges the ghostly, transmogrified spiritual which, as I mentioned earlier, seems to have been hovering just out of ear shot in the earlier music. It is a stunning moment.

The fourth quartet which bears the typically playful and provocative title, Hallelujah Anyhow, was inspired by the composer hearing the Momenta Quartet playing his second quartet. Musically, it has much more in common with the third quartet though in this work the influence of the classical quartet tradition, always present, becomes more overt. I found myself thinking indirectly of Beethoven’s last and most playful quartet. Its final pages sing out a ferocious yet tender hymn that is as uncompromising as it is compelling. I was put in mind of the end of Sibelius 7.

Taken together, these four quartets represent a prodigious achievement. The performers clearly feel about them as I do – and as I hope many more listeners will come to. They are beautifully recorded. Indeed, the whole enterprise is an immense success. The haunting second quartet above all is a masterpiece and deserves to be heard!

David McDade

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