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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
The String Quartets

String Quartet No. 1, From the Salvation Army (c. 1898-1902)
String Quartet No. 2 (c. 1911-13)
Hymn * (c. 1904)
Hallowe’en ** (c. 1907, possibly revised 1911)
Lydian String Quartet: Daniel Stepner, violin; Judith Eissenberg, violin; Mary Ruth Ray, viola; Rhonda Rider, cello
Edwin Barker, string bass *
Sally Pinkas, piano**
Lee Hyla, bass drum **
Rec. September 17-18, 1988 at Slosberg Auditorium, Brandeis University.
CENTAUR CRC 2069 [52.06]

 

Ives’ two string quartets are strikingly different, even though both bear the composer’s remarkable stamp of originality. Ives wrote the First String Quartet during his sophomore year at Yale University. It was his first major multi-movement work. Each movements is based an organ composition that Ives had written as a church organist. (Unfortunately, these works are now lost.) Characteristically, Ives also quotes many familiar hymn tunes, and weaves them into the fabric of his composition. Since the work is steeped in such religious feeling, the subtitle of the work is From the Salvation Army.

In the First String Quartet, the Lydian players are appropriately grave and reverential. In the second movement, they are jaunty and dance-like. The third movement, titled Offertory, is very tender, and the Lydian String Quartet plays with a gentle, luminous tone. The final movement is also convincing, with a stirring finale. However, the overall impression is one of delicacy, with an almost nostalgic quality. Compared to other recorded versions of this work, the Lydian Quartet’s tone is especially gentle. The Concord String Quartet offers an interesting contrast. Their reading brings much more vitality and joy in the work. Ultimately, I find their reading to be more convincing. But the Concord Quartet’s recording, only available on LP, is long out of print (Nonesuch H-71306). Regardless, the Lydian Quartet reading is very fine, if a bit different.

The Second String Quartet dates from Ives’ peak years. Ives regarded the work as one of his best compositions. Unlike the First String Quartet, which is largely a traditional, tonal work, the Second String Quartet is one of Ives’ thorniest, most difficult works, with significant atonal passages. Ives describes the program of the work:

S[tring] Q[uartet] for 4 men--who converse, discuss, argue (in re: 'Politick', fight, shake hands, shut up--then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!

The work represents Ives’ disgust with the conservative classical music establishment, and its unwillingness to vary from traditional, narrowly defined notions of beauty. As such, this is certainly one of Ives’ most confrontational works.

From its mysterious opening passage, the Second String Quartet comes from a different sound world. The Lydian players are especially haunting in the first movement, "Discussions." The second movement, "Arguments," is exaggeratedly sweet and then crunchingly dissonant by turns. In fact, I would have preferred to hear an even more confrontational quality from the Lydian Quartet here. The Juilliard String Quartet, for example, is much more fierce, even hallucinatory, on their recently re-issued Sony recording (UK Sony Essential Classics 87967). The work reaches its apotheosis in the third movement, "The Call of the Mountains." The Lydian Quartet’s reading of 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 other works—"Hymn" and "Hallowe’en"—are equally well performed. Throughout the entire disc, the sound quality is fine, with a natural, slightly reverberant, "in the room" quality.

These performances by the Lydian String Quartet are impressive. While I wouldn’t want to be without other versions of these works—notably the recordings by the Juilliard and Concord string quartets—this disc would make a fine addition to anyone’s collection. Recommended.

Scott Mortensen

View Scott Mortensen’s Charles Ives web site on MusicWeb

 



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