Walter PISTON (1894-1976)
String Quartets: No. 1 (1933) [17.25]; No. 3 (1947) [15.22]; No. 5 (1962) [16.56]
Harlem Quartet
rec. 12-14 November 2009, St. Anne’s Church, Toronto, Canada

It’s difficult to get excited about Walter Piston, or so I thought. I have had for some time a recording of his 4th Symphony on Delos (now transferred to Naxos 8.559162) which I really like but perhaps it’s the fact that like many music students I was expected to ‘take on board’ Piston’s three hefty tomes ‘Harmony’ of 1941, Counterpoint of 1947 and his famous if rather dry book on Orchestration of 1955. So I came to these quartets with a little circumspection. That said, I was immediately won over.

The String Quartet No. 1 is in the composer’s favourite three movement format. The first is an athletic Allegro in sonata-form with well contrasted subjects. The second is the longest movement with a most beautiful atmosphere which rises quite logically into a brief fugal passage. The third movement, which moves between regular and irregular quaver patterns, is a (too) brief Allegro Vivace. This is the longest of the three works here but never outstays its welcome and the Harlem Quartet brings out all of its qualities brilliantly.

As to Piston’s 3rd String Quartet Richard Whitehouse in his useful booklet notes asserts that Bartók is “undoubtedly present”. I was also reminded of Michal Tippett, perhaps the 2nd Quartet. There is a sonata-form first movement which despite its at times somewhat ambiguous tonality, contrives, not all that successfully, to land on a minor chord ending. The third movement, also in a (looser) sonata-form structure, does the same but with more satisfaction. The middle movement begins with the cello’s open strings and there are some effective harmonics. It is a lonely landscape painted with almost classical line and counterpoint. On the whole the work did not seem to me as interesting as the 1st Quartet although that is no criticism of the tremendously committed performance.

By the time we reach the 5th Quartet of 1962 we have moved on almost thirty years since the 1st. One difference is that Piston has now espoused serial technique although he uses it without strictures and in a personal way. Premiered in Berlin it falls into three movements; again the outer ones being in sonata-form. The usual two contrasting ideas are present; in each case a bouncy, rhythmical one followed by a slower almost romantic melody. Counterpoint and vivacity is the by-word especially in the syncopated finale. The Harlem Quartet brings out its best qualities and make out a real case for this somewhat neglected if not always memorable music.

I recall The Harlem Quartet making quite a ‘splash’ in Britain in 2009 and appearing on the Today Programme on Radio 4, or as the booklet proclaims the ‘Today Show’. They are the first American all-black string quartet.

Far be it from me to condone the short playing time of this CD at less the fifty minutes but I am making an assumption that the remaining Quartets (2 and 4) will come out on a separate disc and could not be fitted onto this. Let’s hope so because the music, the recording and the performances are of a very high quality.

Gary Higginson

The music, the recording and the performances are of a very high quality.