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String Quartets with Soprano
Richard WERNICK (b.1934) String Quartet No. 5 (1995) [22:09]
Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983) String Quartet No. 3 Op. 40 (1973) [25:49]
John HARBISON (b.1938) The Rewaking (1991) [19:22]
Benita Valente (soprano)
Juilliard String Quartet
rec: 4-5 March 2000, December 1999, SUNY Purchase Theatre A, Purchase, NY
BRIDGE 9192 [67:42]


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 demanding repertoire.

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 colour’.

Wernick’s quartet 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.

John Harbison 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.

Gary Higginson


 



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