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Jewish String Quartets
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Études sur des thèmes liturgiques du Comtat Venaissin (1973)
(Modéré 4:53; Animé 2:05; Modéré 1:51)
Juilliard String Quartet (Joel Smirnoff, violin; Ronald Copes, violin; Samuel Rhodes, viola; Joel Krosnick, cello)
Abraham Wolf BINDER (1895-1966)
Two Hassidic Moods (1934)
(I. Meditation 4:41 5. II. Dance 7:09)
Bochmann String Quartet (Michael Bochmann, violin; Mark Messenger, violin; Helen Roberts, viola; Peter Adams, cello)
Ruth SCHONTHAL (b. 1924)
String Quartet No. 3, In Memoriam Holocaust (1997)
(I. Grave 8:00; II. Lament and Prayer 10:49)
Bingham String Quartet (Stephen Bingham, violin; Sally-Ann Weeks, violin; Brenda Stewart, viola; James Halsey, cello)
Kol Nidre (1996) 6:20
Ilya Kaler, violin; Perrin Yang, violin; George Taylor, viola; Steven Doane, cello
Sholom SECUNDA (1894-1974)
String Quartet in C Minor (1945)
(I. Allegretto 9:15; II. Adagio 4:02; III. Allegro 7:47; IV. Allegro con fuoco 10:30)
Bochmann String Quartet
rec. Oct 2001, AAAL, NYC (Milhaud); Nov 1998 (Binder, Secunda), Feb 1999 (Schonthal), St Silas, London; Sept 1999, Kilbourn Hall, Eastman School, Rochester, USA (Zorn)

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This quintet of quartets - or to be accurate quartets and quartet movements – shares the common feature of Jewishness.  That said there will be many who will have to dig deep to excavate ostensible signs of the Jewish element, even when it is made programmatically explicit and when the notes draw our attention to these elements.

Milhaud’s three Études sur des thèmes liturgiques du Comtat Venaissin are excellent examples of his lyrically seamless Provençale style – as lissom and frank as one would expect of a work written in 1973. Moments that hint at the Jewish lineage are those in which the cello intones somewhat gutturally in the lower register but otherwise one is aware principally of the bracing clarity of the writing and its Cézanne-like colour.

New York-born Abraham Wolf Binder’s Two Hassidic Moods come from much earlier, 1934. Lyrically articulate and slowly evolving – and modal – the second of the two is the more impressive. It’s a dance movement with plenty of involving motifs and as with the Milhaud it’s the cello that takes on the burden of oratory and Chassid extroversion.

Ruth Schonthal’s Third Quartet bears the title In Memoriam Holocaust and is similarly cast in two movements. Hers is the most recent of the quintet of works, dating from 1997. It’s clearly the most challenging of them as well and in its wrenching glissandi and powerful tremolandi it makes a strong impression. There are a number of barely hidden reminiscences of the seductive Scheherazade theme – so much so that I wonder about some programmatic or emblematic feature being at work. She has the courage to end the first of the two movements in unresolved crisis and to give the cello an extended chant in the second, a feature that binds a number of these works. There’s no easy relief here.

John Zorn may seem unlikely company here, especially as he is on best - non cutting edge - behaviour but he contributes an adroitly unfolding Kol Nidre with themes emerging in deft sub-clauses rather than opulent paragraphs.

Finally there is the most old-fashioned work of all, from Sholom Secunda, his C minor Quartet. Written in 1945 this harks back to gentler times. The opening movement recalls the Vienna of Kreislerian operetta and the second brings us yet another powerful cellistic solo, with hints once more of the cantorial. There’s a Schubertian waltz spiced with more traditional Central-Eastern European dance rhythms (think of Smetana’s Polkas). The finale is in easy late nineteenth century style though it does have a few darkening shadows, a keening rabbinical shudder for the lower strings. All in all though it’s a determinedly backward-looking work.

Once again the Milken Archive team have surpassed themselves with documentation. It’s so thorough and well presented that it makes me wonder if a book should not be compiled from the notes to the many discs now issued.

Jonathan Woolf

see also Review by Rob Barnett


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