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String Quartet Nos. 1 & 2 / Juilliard String Quartet
(Sony Essential Classics 87967, coupled with Orchestral Set No. 1: "Three Places in New England" and Variations on "America" conducted by Ormandy; available in the U.K.)

I was happy to discover that Sony UK recently re-issued these recordings on compact disc. These are exceptional, and they easily receive my highest recommendation. To my ears, no one performs the Second SQ with the same sense of hushed intensity and fierce confrontation as the Juilliard SQ. In the first movement, "Discussions," the Juilliard players bring a questing quality to the music--even as the music seems to be unravelling. In this reading, there is a definite sense of barriers being broken, of alienation, and loneliness. The second movement, "Arguments," ups the ante. Here the playing is even more fierce. No other quartet is nearly as forceful and compelling as the Juilliard Quartet. The sounds are wonderfully vivid, even phantasmic, but never impersonal or bombastic. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this recording is the third movement, "The Call of the Mountains." Again, a questing, exploratory quality comes to the fore. I hear Ives trying to forge some kind of connection between the old and the new; the traditional and the modern; popular and classical; the earth and the heavens, and every sort of irreconcilable. And it all builds to an incredible climax of cosmic grandeur. In other recordings, these final moments of the work--its apotheosis--seem tacked on, an afterthought. Here it seems natural, even inevitable. Extraordinary. The First SQ is nearly as good as the as the Second. The Juilliard SQ's reading may lack some of the improvisatory spontaneity of the Concord recording, but it's certainly effective, and compelling on its own terms. The other works included on this disc are also favorites of mine. Ormandy's "Three Places" was the first Ives that I ever heard, the music that sparked my fascination with Ives and his music. This is an essential disc!

String Quartet Nos. 1 & 2 / Concord String Quartet (Nonesuch H-71306, out of print LP)

What a wonderfully vivid and spontaneous-sounding performance this is! The Concord players are so expressive! This LP, which has never been issued on compact disc, contains my all-time favorite version of the First SQ. There's much more passion here than in any other performance on disc. It's clear that the players don't regard this as a mere "student work." They believe in it! The first movement is urgent, and the second is jaunty and dance-like. The Concord players are very free with tempo and dynamics, but ironically, they seem much more true to the spirit of Ives' music. There's a rightness about this playing. Shifts in tempo seem inevitable, just so. This is joyous music-making; others sound dour in comparison. The Second String Quartet isn't quite the unalloyed success of the First, but it's still very compelling. The first and second movements are something special. Again, the Concord players' sense of freedom comes across wonderfully. Whereas the Juilliard SQ sounds fierce and intense, the Concord SQ sounds downright wild. It is very "Ivesian," wholly idiomatic. Only in the third movement do I prefer the Juilliard Quartet. Their reading just seems to hold together a shade more, and, as a consequence, the final moments of the work are more compelling. But let's not miss the forest for the trees. This is great stuff. Nonesuch really should re-issue this on CD. In the meantime, Ives-lovers, you owe it to yourself to track down this record.

String Quartet Nos. 1 & 2, Hymn, & Hallowe'en / Lydian String Quartet (Centaur CRC 2069)

The Lydian String Quartet performs the First SQ with a gentle, luminous tone. The final movement is especially convincing, with a stirring finale. The overall impression is one of delicacy--at least compared with other recordings. The Lydians have an almost nostalgic quality. As mentioned above, the Concord String Quartet brings a more vital, joyful approach to the work, and ultimately I find their recording to be more convincing. Nonetheless, the Lydian Quartet's reading of the First SQ is very fine, if a bit different. The Lydian players performance of the Second Quartet is also very fine. The first movement is haunting , and the second movement is exaggeratedly sweet and then crunchingly dissonant by turns. Even so, I would have preferred to hear an even more confrontational quality in the "Arguments" movement. The Juilliard String Quartet is more fierce, to good effect. But the Lydian SQ reaches the summit in the third movement, "The Call of the Mountains." This movement is exceptional. The pacing is excellent, and the highlight of the disc is the cosmic finale where Ives manages to unify all of the competing "characters" as they gaze up at the heavens. The "fillers" Hymn and Hallowe'en are interesting too. Not my first choice for either quartet, but an excellent disc nonetheless.

String Quartet No. 2; Scherzo "Holding Your Own" / Cleveland Quartet / "Two American Masterpieces" (RCA ARL1-1599, coupled with Barber's String Quartet, out of print LP)

I stumbled across this record at a shop specializing in used vinyl. I like the sense of rugged improvisation that the Clevelanders bring to the recording. By way of comparison, the Emerson String Quartet sounds more polished and powerful, but also less spontaneous. I also like the sound quality of the RCA recording. Each of the Clevelanders is recorded as a distinct voice, which I find appropriate given the work's program. (Yes, the right vinyl still sounds great!) Unfortunately, the Cleveland Quartet RCA recording is out of print. In fact, as far as I know, it's never made the transition to compact disc. In any case, this recording is very fine and has much to recommend it.

String Quartet No. 2 / Walden String Quartet (Folkways FW03369, coupled with Hovhaness' "Lousadzak" Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Strings; available online at www.smithsonianglobalsound.org)

This was the premiere recording of Second String Quartet. It's a surprisingly good performance, even though it probably won't be your first choice for this work due to the sonic limitations of the 1946 recording. Despite technical shortcomings, there is nothing tentative or insecure about the playing of the (appropriately named!) Walden String Quartet. They do a great job of capturing the work's rugged grandeur. I wonder what CEI thought of this recording. I imagine that he must have been pleased. (The Hovhaness work coupled with the quartet is interesting too.)

String Quartet No. 2 / American Festival of Microtonal Music Ensemble (Pitch 200203, coupled with works by Carillo, Partch, Scelsi, Xenakis, and Harrison)

Review coming soon.



String Quartet Nos. 1 & 2 (and other works for string quartet) / Leipzig Quartet / "Complete Music for String Quartet" [MD&G (Dabringhaus & Grimm) Gold label (MDG 3071143)]

This generously filled all-Ives disc is an impressive recording. The Leipzig SQ's take on the First Quartet is especially strong. They are obviously convinced by this "student" work. It's a flowing, genial reading, and I found myself smiling as I listened. Unfortunately, the Second Quartet is only a qualified success. This interpretation lacks some of the vivid characterization--and humor--that the Juilliard and Concord Quartets find. And the final movement never quite takes off like some other readings. Even so, I like this recording very much. Another reason hear this disc: The "filler" works that accompany the string quartets are all outstanding. If you've got a favorite version of the Second String Quartet, and you'd like to hear Ives' other chamber works for string quartet, think about tracking this one down.

String Quartet Nos. 1 & 2, Scherzo: "Holding Your Own" / Emerson String Quartet / "American Originals" (DG 2GH 435864, coupled with Barber's String Quartet)

The Emerson String Quartet's performances are polished and powerful. The First SQ, "From the Salvation Army," is appropriately gentle and reverential. The Second is by turns spiky and dissonant and then eerie and mysterious. In the Second String Quartet, the timing of each movement is significantly longer than the Clevelanders. The works have a clear sense of architecture, even in the most dissonant passages, and build to stirring climaxes. The Scherzo and Barber SQ are also well performed. (Incidentally, the Barber SQ contains the original version of the "Adagio for Strings," for which he became famous.) These are solid readings--but I do sense that something is missing. To my ears, they just don't sound as "Ivesian" as the best versions.

String Quartet Nos. 1 & 2 / Kohon String Quartet of New York University (Vox Turnabout TV34157S, out of print LP)

This is a pioneering release, which contains the premiere recording of the First SQ. These are solid versions, but I'd turn elsewhere before tracking this down. (As of today, it remains out of print.) The Kohon String Quartet's interpretation lacks the subtlety of the best versions, and the ensemble's strings lack the refinement and power of groups like the Juilliard and Concord Quartets.

Other Recordings

Other recordings of Ives' string quartets include:

  • Mondriaan String Quartet (EtCetera KTC 1169, includes the String Quartet No. 2 and other chamber works)

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Notes About String Quartet No. 1
| Notes About String Quartet No. 2

Original text copyright Scott Mortensen 2002-2006