Question; when is a
string quartet not a string quartet?
Answer: when it’s a song-cycle. Don’t
blame me just read Malcolm MacDonald’s
booklet notes to this CD and especially
the description of John Harbison’s ‘The
Rewaking’ to grasp the point a little
more fully. I quote "the work is,
officially speaking, a song cycle (on
poems by William Carlos Williams) with
string quartet accompaniment ... its
formal and textural intricacy and the
thoroughness of its motivic development
….are such that it may be classed as
a thoroughgoing string quartet".
Clear? Anyway as I say don’t blame me,
blame Schoenberg, at least his 2nd
Quartet or even, another culprit, Alberto
Ginastera as featured here on this fascinating
CD for which one can’t help but wonder
why no-one has thought to put these
works together before. They were all
premiered by this particular combination.
The dates are given above.
Ginastera, as the notes
tell us, "was fascinated by the
example of Schoenberg’s 2nd
Quartet, by using a soprano not as a
soloist to whom the string players were
subordinate, but as an additional component
of the instrumental texture". In
its five movements the second and half
of the third have no singer. In Richard
Wernick’s 5th Quartet there
is no singing in the middle two of the
four movements. The voice then must
meld and mix with the quartet both in
so far as the material it sings and
also with its blend and balance.
As much as I admire
Benita Valente her vibrato is such as
to spoil, for me anyway, my enjoyment
of certain key movements on the disc.
For example Ginastera’s quartet ends
with a deliberately sustained and fading
high note. This is marred by her seemingly
uncontrolled vibrato. There are other
moments when similar problems emerge.
Yet I must not be too critical of such
a fine performer who was a pupil of
Lotte Lehmann. She was born in 1934;
in other words she was 66 when this
CD was made. Despite this her voice
generally holds up exceedingly well
in this emotionally and technically
A few highlights from
each work to whet your appetite. Alberto
Ginastera needs no introduction
although the claim that he is ‘Argentina’s
finest composer’ may need more sustenance
in the light of the popularity of Piazzolla.
The quartet is a fine and disturbing
work. The poets set are Juan Jimenez
(Movements 1 and 4) and, in between,
Lorca - whom Ginastera knew - and Rafael
Alberti. There seems little to connect
the poems and from that point of view
the idea of a connected song-cycle never
comes into contention. Being late Ginastera
it is quite an experimental piece. The
strings are used in all sorts of ways:
high tremolandi, Bartók pizz
and quarter-tones. The voice is asked
to use its entire register and is also
asked to hum and recite. In other words
the voice is a balanced member of the
ensemble. As the booklet says, the overall
effect is often of ‘a rainbow of intense
is dense and intense but may at first
appear a little easier to assimilate.
It is dedicated to the memory of Yitzhak
Rabin the assassinated Israeli premier.
Wernick sets poems by the Jewish Hannah
Senesh (1921-1944) written during the
war. She was eventually murdered by
the Nazis after time in the resistance.
The short aphoristic poems frame two
scherzos. Why? I’m not sure, but these
outer sections are freely chromatic
and passionately intense. The unsettling
scherzos offer a useful and much needed
variety of tempi. Having heard the work
several times I can’t say that I am
sure that the structure really works.
comes clean and does indeed describe
his The Rewaking as a song-cycle.
In a free-wheeling chromatic language
he sets poems by William Carlos Williams
and these are distributed throughout
the four movements. The first, entitled
The Wood thrush, is the
longest, beginning with a meditative
opening before the voice enters at first
wordless as if feeling her way. This
is a finely lyrical movement. The second
movement The Woodpeckers, seeks
to emphasise, in its scherzo format,
a pecking rhythm. The Lady Speaks,
the third movement, is also a scherzo
- just like the structure of Wernick's
quartet. The finale, The Rewaking
ends on a long-held D accompanied by
a spiral of harmonics. The text emphasises
the whole thrust of the work "... and
so by your love the very sun itself
is revived" - that is, the power
of love and of the natural world.
The booklet comes with
all texts, the aforementioned essay
and photographs of the composers and
performers. It’s really a model of its
kind; other companies should take note.
The print is clear and not at all microscopic.
This is an important
disc of ground-breaking quartets performed
by their dedicatees, some of America’s
most respected and important musicians
of the late 20th century.
Bridge should be congratulated on their
enterprise. This issue, as well as being
one of strong intrinsic musical value,
is also an historical document of the
work of a group of very fine perhaps
even legendary performers.