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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
String Quartet No.1: From the Salvation Army (1896) [21:46]
Scherzo (ca.1907-14) [1:42]
String Quartet No.2 (1911-13) [26:59]
Blair String Quartet
rec. Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee 5, 6, 8 March 2004.
NAXOS 8.559178 [50:19] 


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Charles Ives’ two string quartets represent two sides of a musical coin. The first, “From the Salvation Army”, composed in 1896, while he was a sophomore at Yale, seems almost demure compared to much of Ives’ other music. Like his first symphony, which he later shrugged off as a work of youth, it is relatively accessible, featuring little dissonance, yet including quotes on a number of well-known hymns, something Ives would continue to do all his life; as well as the familiar opening motive from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony which Ives often used in his work. While the development and exposition of themes are not revolutionary, the music manages to remain just on the fence between romanticism and modernity.

The second quartet is another kettle of fish altogether. In three movements, “Discussions”, “Arguments”, and “The Call of the Mountain”, it opens with an eerie chromatic phrase that develops into a hymn-like motif, before decaying again into chromaticism. Here is Ives’ true musical form: challenging the listener at every step, provoking and surprising. While the first movement is somewhat sedate, the second music is harsh and dissonant, and merits the name “Arguments”. This relatively brief movement - less than 5 minutes compared to the framing movements’ duration of over ten minutes each - is concentrated and powerful, and the third movement returns to the tone of the first, with “a tranquility that suggests the arguing foursome have forgotten their differences as they contemplate the eternal from a spot in the mountains.” (From the liner notes by Jim Lovensheimer.) This reminds me of John Cage’s anecdote about something D. T. Suzuki said about studying Zen. "Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains." Dr. Suzuki was asked what the difference is between before and after. "No difference,” he replied, “only the feet are a little bit off the ground.”

Finally, this disc contains a brief scherzo for string quartet composed around 1907-1914. This raucous work features many quotes from musics of all kinds, and is typical of Ives’ music of this period, collaging hymns such as Bringing In the Sheaves, Stephen Foster songs and other popular music. 

The performers attack this music with zeal and energy, and with exemplary balance between their instruments. However, the recording sounds odd, at once distant and reverberated, with not quite enough separation among the various instruments. The combination of the good balance and the lackluster sound gives the impression of a single group rather than the interplay of four instruments. Comparing this recording with that by the Emerson Quartet shows that the latter group has the upper hand by a landslide: not only is their performance tighter, but the sound is nearly ideal. On the Emerson recording, each instrument stands out, the stereo separation is perfect and the overall sound excellent. The Emerson’s performance, too, is a step up from that of the Blairs, though the vibrato used by the Emerson’s violinist detracts a bit from the intensity of the final movement of the Second Quartet. However, I find that the sound of the Emerson recording helps give the music a little more drama — especially, again, in the second quartet and the brilliant final section of the third movement.

Nonetheless, in spite of the sound, this is a fine recording, and its budget price means that it is an excellent introduction to Ives for those unfamiliar with his work. Ives fans will certainly want to snatch this up for another reading of these works that are not recorded often enough. 

Kirk McElhearn

see also Review by Dominy Clements


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