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Harold SHAPERO (b 1920)
Serenade in D for String Quintet (1945 for String Orchestra, arr. Quintet, 1999)
String Quartet (1941)
String Trio (1937)
Lydian String Quartet in the Quartet
Lydian String Quartet with Edwin Barker double bass) in the Quintet
Daniel Stepner (violin), Mary Ruth Ray (viola) and Rhonda Rider of the Lydian String Quartet in the Trio
Recorded Slosberg Auditorium, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts between 2000 and 2002
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80569-2 [67.58]


Born in Massachusetts in 1920 Shapero proved a gifted youth, studying with Nicolas Slonimsky and Ernst Křenek and with Walter Piston at Harvard from 1937-41. The roll call of musicians who influenced him during this period either through direct tutelage of some kind – Hindemith, Boulanger – or indirectly such as Stravinsky - is a prestigious one and it’s clear that his compositional precocity was matched by commensurate talent. If we need proof it comes in the form of these three early chamber works, all of which pre-date the work by which he is best known, the Symphony for Classical Orchestra. It was after that success that Shapero ran into critical disapproval – some of it from compositional colleagues who found fault with his supposedly backward-leaning tendencies, amongst other charges. The ascendancy of serialism also arrested wider appreciation of his own music-making and he suffered a period of grievous neglect only partially ended by André Previn’s Los Angeles revival of the Symphony in 1986.

The Serenade is the composer’s own Quintet arrangement of the "bigger" work for String Orchestra. This five-movement work has real richness of imagination, from the elegant but withdrawn language of the Adagio opening to the light and breezy neo-classicism (but sounding newly clothed) of the Allegro section of the first movement. His minuet is witty and precise with a rather folk-like trio section with ragtime hints and gorgeously timed running pizzicati. If the Larghetto summons up Mozartian shades one can justly say that model has been absorbed – this is no pastiche – and illuminated afresh with precision and delicate rhythm. The whole Quintet shares the light and aerated textures of these movements – let’s hear the full ensemble version as soon as possible.

The 1941 Quartet was dedicated to Piston whilst Shapero was still his student. It’s a work of avowed neo-classicist intent taken here at warm and flowing tempi. In its rhythmic confidence it does bear Piston’s influence but there is a beautifully coloured lyricism in the opening movement and a swinging snap to the rhythmic profile that gives the second real drive – though there are moments of lyrical intensity especially for the lower strings. The third movement opens with some arrestingly stern unison writing but it soon lightens before hinting at a fugato section that never appears and instead settles on a march like theme. The finale is cast in sonata-form wave-like surges and very exciting.

The programme runs reverse chronologically so that in our end is our beginning. We end with the 1937 String Trio, written when Shapero was just seventeen. In three concise movements and lasting eleven minutes this is a work animated by clear and singing lines despite the occasionally provocative writing. Lines break down and are re-started whilst maintaining continuity. Shapero’s explicit utilisation of the tone row in the second movement is accompanied by a questing melancholy for the solo strings – and this is a work that very much bears the practical approach to serialist procedure that Křenek was then spending so much time propagating; to good effect I might add. The finale by contrast is brisk and acerbic and also, lest I give a wrong impression of the music, playful. Shapero may be complex, even in these early works, but never portentous.

The notes are by David Cleary – well argued and full of musicological and biographical detail. The performances are spirited, colourful and rhythmically acute as well as technically splendid – they sound thoroughly well prepared and are admirable advocates for these early works by an unfairly neglected composer of unquestionable status.

Jonathan Woolf



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