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Four Amercian Quartets
Ralph EVANS (b. 1953)

String Quartet No.1 (1995) [15:02]

Philip GLASS (b. 1937)

String Quartet No.2, Company (1983) [8:51]

George ANTHEIL (b. 1900–1959)

String Quartet No.3 (1948) [18:16]

Bernard HERRMANN (1911–1975)

Echoes for String Quartet (1965) [20:17]

Fine Arts Quartet: (Ralph Evans (violin); Efim Boico (violin); Yuri Gandelsman (viola); Wolfgang Laufer (cello))

rec. 17-19 March 2007, Il Bagno Konzertgalerie, Steinfurt, Germany. DDD
NAXOS 8.559354 [62:27]

Experience Classicsonline

This is an interesting and intelligently planned recital mixing the unknown with the well known, by composers similarly covered.

Evans is the leader of the Quartet and his work, which he started in 1966 but only completed thirty years later, is written, according to the notes, “in a non–derivative style”. To me it seems to reek of Hindemith, but without that composer’s humour. It’s well laid out for the instruments but I find little of substance and interest in it. 

The other works are far superior examples of American quartet writing. Company is an early manifestation, in quartet writing, of the style which has made Glass famous. It’s more subdued than much of his work, but it’s none the worse for that. Hypnotic and quite beautiful, Company started life as music for a theatrical presentation of the prose poem by Samuel Beckett. Whereas Beckett’s language can be dense and, seemingly, impenetrable, Glass’s music is clear and light. It’s one of his most easily approachable works. 

The self-styled “bad boy of music”, George Antheil is a fascinating character. His life story, which he told with great hilarity in his autobiography, Bad Boy of Music, (Doubleday, New York (1945)) is both fascinating and very entertaining. In his early career he lived in Paris, above Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company premises - which printed the very first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. There he gave recitals of ultra-modern piano works – with a loaded pistol resting on the audience side of the instrument. This, he says, ensured a quiet - if not necessarily attentive – audience. He achieved notoriety with his compositions – Ballet Mécanique being the most scandalous. He returned to America in 1936 and, with this move, his music became more relaxed and easy-going. He also wrote many film scores alongside his concert works. 

Antheil wasn’t just a composer in America. He was a reporter during World War II, contributing columns on endocinology to Esquire magazine, and advice to the love-lorn for the Chicago Sun Syndicate – a kind of Dear Deirdre which appears in many tabloid newspapers today. With actress Hedy Lamarr he patented a torpedo guidance system and a broad-spectrum signal transmission system which was called frequency skipping. He also published two books - Death In the Dark, a crime novel (1930), Everyman His Own Detective: A Study of Glandular Criminology (Stackpole Sons, New York City (1937)) and a pamphlet The Shape of the War to Come (1940) as well as his autobiography.

His Third Quartet is light-hearted and very pleasant. The first movement always makes me think of cowboys and the great outdoors. There is a folksy feel to the music and it’s quite delightful. This is no bad boy of music, more a kindly old-timer. Some people have, unkindly, stated that after his return to America his music was never as interesting as his early, avant-garde, works. This is nonsense for there is as much thought and intelligence in this music as in any he wrote. It’s just that his later works want to be audience-friendly and he’s done his bit scaring the horses. 

Perhaps more than almost any other composer, Bernard Herrmann craved success in the concert hall and felt that he had wasted his time producing music for film. It is unfortunate that, for me, the majority of his concert works – a Symphony and Cantata based on Moby Dick included – simply don’t make it. Their language and gestures are simply too earthbound and the ideas never seem to take fire as did so much of his music for the silver screen. For instance, if the Death Hunt from his score for On Dangerous Ground (1951) was the scherzo of the Symphony there would be the beginnings of a potentially great work. There are a couple of concert works which do work and which are well worthy of our attention – the exquisite orchestral miniature For the Fallen (1943) and the quartet, Echoes, which closes this disk. 

Echoes was Herrmann’s first work for quartet. As it turned out, it was also his last. Its origins lie in ballet - it was danced by the Royal Ballet in 1971. There are ten movements, which play without a break, and the music is colourful and exciting. It’s a cogent and tersely argued work which will reward repeated listening. 

The performances of the Fine Arts Quartet are full-blooded and very committed. The recorded sound is clear, if slightly lacking in reverberation. Well worth having for the Herrmann and Antheil scores which should be better known.

Bob Briggs 

see also Review by Rob Barnett


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