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best thing I’ve heard this year

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The American String Project 2006
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
String Quartet in C minor Op. 18 No. 4 (1798-1800) (arr. Barry Lieberman) [25:34]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) String Quartet No. 12 Op. 123 (1968) (arr. Barry Lieberman) [27:19]
Pablo SARASATE (1844-1908) (arr. Stephanie Chase) Caprice Basque Op. 24 (1881) [6:02] Romanza Andaluza Op. 22 No. 1 [4:52] Zigeunerweisen Op. 20 (1878) [9:20]
The American String Project (Eriko Sato (leader – Beethoven), Maria Larinoff (leader – Shostakovich), Stephanie Chase (leader – Sarasate))
rec. live, 8 June 2006, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington
MSR CLASSICS MS 1226 [73:08]

The American String Project is a group of fifteen string players who play without conductor. The leaflet states that the "Project" is "an annual phenomenon where diverse performers and modes and visions mingle to create something that did not exist before" and that "the intimacy of the chamber music articulation , with its interplay of tone and color, is enriched and deepened, taking on the tonalities of a string symphony – but always with the proportion and exchange that characterizes the great chamber works".

I have quoted this at length as it is certainly not the impression given by the Beethoven Quartet which opens the disc. There is nothing new in small or even large orchestras playing Beethoven’s Quartets, and recordings by Toscanini and others have shown that they can reveal new aspects of the music. Unfortunately that is not the case here. The main effect of doubling or trebling the various lines is to muddy the texture and make Beethoven’s careful sharing of the material between the players sound clumsy. The sound of the doubled (trebled?) first violin is particularly unpleasant sounding frequently out of tune and harsh. This is a great pity as the shape of the underlying performance insofar as it can be discerned is serious and idiomatic.

Things improve for the other items. Other Shostakovich Quartets have been turned into String Symphonies and there is no reason why the same cannot be done here. There are indeed some gains from the extra strings, although I am not convinced that even then they outweigh the loss of intimacy and greater transparency in the original. The lengthy second movement should gain in intensity with each repeat of the various ostinato figures which form its basic material but somehow it fails to do so here. The tension dissipates on occasion and has to be regained afresh. I would certainly not regard this as a complete failure as a performance – the fundamental character of the Quartet is conveyed - but overall it does not begin to compare with the best performances with one player to a part.

The most successful and enjoyable performances by a long way are the three short pieces by Sarasate. Essentially all are string solos with accompaniment, and they work well when transcribed entirely for strings. The applause after the final item is well deserved - and curiously is the only applause on a disc said to be of a live concert - but perhaps these pieces are too late to save a disc whose ambitious aims are not achieved in practice.

John Sheppard


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