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Quincy Porter (1897-1966)
String Quartet No.1 in E minor (1922-23) [19:19]
String Quartet No.2 (1925) [14:29]
String Quartet No.3 (1930) [16:23]
String Quartet No.4 (1931) [15:19]
Ives Quartet: (Bettina Mussumeli (1st violin); Susan Freier (2nd violin); Judi Levitz (viola); Stephen Harrison (cello)).
rec. St Stephen’s Church, Belvedere, California, 21-26 May 2006. DDD
NAXOS 8.559305 [65:30]

I had not heard any music by Quincy Porter prior to hearing this CD. In fact, as far as I was concerned, he was quite simply a name. I would not have known whether he wrote avant-garde music or jazz or even songs for the shows. However this CD has stopped me in my tracks. Firstly, it reveals a composer who writes great music. Secondly it introduces a musician who, at least on the basis of this CD, deserves to be better known well beyond the USA. And lastly his Nine Quartets represent a cross-section of the composer’s achievement over some five decades. They allow us a unique insight into his personal development in the context of mid-twentieth century music.
A few words about the composer may be helpful. Quincy Porter was born in New Haven, Connecticut on 7 February 1897. He was fortunate to study at Yale University where his teachers included the eminent Horatio Parker. Further study with Vincent d’Indy and Ernest Bloch in Paris ensured a solid foundation of compositional skills. In addition to writing music he was a teacher. He taught at Vassar during the 1930s and latterly became Dean and finally Director of the New England Conservatory of Music. He was to return to Yale as professor and taught until his retirement in 1965. He died the following year.
A brief study of his catalogue reveals a wide variety of music across a number of forms. We noted his nine string quartets, but there are also two symphonies, a number of concertos and a deal of other chamber music. However there are no operas or major choral pieces: it was only quite late that he came to write songs.
It is difficult to place Quincy Porter in the pantheon of American composers. It could be convenient to place him in a theoretical ‘New England School’ which would include Porter, Donovan, Piston, Sessions, Moore and Randall Thompson. This somewhat artificial arrangement would be subject to much debate and discussion amongst musicologists. However Howard Boatwright sums the relationships up well. He writes that Porter was “less traditional than Donovan, less neo-classical than Piston, less complex than Sessions, more sophisticated than Moore and more eclectic that Randall Thompson. Porter’s music went its own way.”
As a stylistic guide it would be fair to say that Porter inclined to neo-classicism rather than modernism or romanticism, although as Richard Whitehouse points out, he managed to avoid the adulation of Stravinsky and Hindemith that influenced so much American music.
It was in the nine String Quartets that Porter found his true voice. He had developed a great love of playing chamber music and was a competent viola player who knew much of the common repertoire: he played for most of his life and wrote a concerto for the instrument. It was out of this intimate understanding of the ensemble that these Quartets evolved.
The four Quartets recorded here are all extremely well wrought. The part-writing is grateful to the soloist: the music is written with a subtlety and sensitivity that is totally satisfactory. There is no effect for effect’s sake – he does not write to shock or impress.
The essential style of these Quartets makes “extensive use of chromatic harmonies and sophisticated rhythms in an essentially melodic context.”
These four quartets were written between 1922 and 1931 and represent a journey from a derivative First to a stylistically mature Fourth by way of a Bartókian Second and a folk-music tinged Third.
I note that the complete edition of String Quartets is currently available on an Albany CD [918] played by the Potomac String Quartet. This includes a number of other, shorter chamber pieces. This is issued on two CDs and represents great value for money. However I have not heard them and cannot pass judgement between editions.
The Ives Quartet is based in San Francisco and here make their Naxos debut. The playing is stunning and subtle. As I pointed out above, I do not know these works, but just two hearings reveals a stunning performance, hidden depths and fine expression. This is a Quartet that is perfectly at home with this fine music.
The sound quality is exceptional and of course the programme notes by Richard Whitehouse are extremely helpful.
I have only two concerns. I am not sure why Naxos felt that it was necessary to put the works in anything other than chronological order (the disc order is 3, 2, 1, 4) and will Naxos actually bring out a second - and perhaps even a third - volume?
If the answer to the second question is ‘Yes’ then I heartily recommend this series. But if ‘No’ then I guess that I must suggest an investment in the Potomac String Quartet edition – at least you can guarantee owning all nine quartets – and it is a well-received recording with great reviews.
John France

see also the article on Quincy Porter

Naxos American Classics page


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