American String Project : Live 2010 - 10 Year Anniversary Album
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op.44/2 (1837) [30:00]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)  
String Quartet No. 8 in E minor ("Rasumovsky No. 2"), Op. 59/2 (1806) [37:56]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
String quartet in E minor (1873) [22:09]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartet No. 51 in G major, Op. 64/4, H. 3/66 (1790) [17:13]
Mara Gearman (viola); Stephen Balderston (cello)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111 (1890) [31:03]
All works arranged by Barry Lieberman for string ensemble
American String Project
rec. live, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, WA, May 2010
DVD: The American String Project - A Documentary, rec. May 2009
MSR CLASSICS MS1386 [68:40 + 72:32 + DVD 25:25]
This aggregation assembles annually to perform the arrangements of Barry Lieberman and, as the disc’s subtitle indicates, it has been doing so for a decade. Lieberman has hitherto transcribed Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, Bartók’s First, Shostakovich’s Fourth, Brahms’s Second in A minor, and Dvořák’s quartet in D minor Op.34. All these have been recorded on the MSR label.
For this anniversary release we have 2 CDs and a DVD. This last succinctly summarises the aspirations of the project and shows it in action - concertmasters and leading instrumentalists and teachers coming together to form a 15 strong unit. Amongst the names one finds co-director of the Project Maria Larionoff, Frank Almond, Stephanie Chase and Alexander Kerr amongst the violinists. There are nine violins (five firsts, four seconds), three violas, two cellists, and the single bass of Lieberman himself. The DVD lasts 25 minutes and we see snippets of rehearsal and performance. The performers, where appropriate, are captioned, so at least one can tell who is who.
The performances here represent the whole repertoire of the 2010 season. With a changing personnel of principals, honours are shared around. Each principal is noted in the track-listing, so one can appreciate the truth of something one contributor says in the DVD, which is that this rotational system tests whether a concertmaster (‘leader’) can also be a rank and filer (‘follower’). Leading and following are certainly issues when phrasing, bowing and fingering are concerned. I assume each leader brought his or her own bowings to the stand. Each of the first violinists gets the chance to lead in the five pieces.
There is an honourable history of transcriptions of quartets for chamber or orchestral forces. Therefore one shouldn’t be surprised to see Beethoven’s Op.59 No.2 here. It has merit as a performance though whether it is a wholly successful transcription I rather doubt. The Haydn Op.64/4 sounds like a Divertimento in this transcription, and it waddles in the Presto finale where it should be aerated. Brahms may be seen to respond more successfully, especially a string quintet, though I find problems with the massed strings that are possibly unjust. But, like the transcriptions of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, a permanent and slightly larger string ensemble, there are times when such a large string body blunts rhythmic incisiveness. Clearly a string quintet would be able to phrase more athletically than the ensemble of fifteen, and therefore we are not comparing like with like. But as a listening experience I find a certain lumbering quality inherent, no matter how fine the individual and corporate playing may be. And it is indeed fine playing, bold and confident in the Verdi and in the chamber-sized Mendelssohn, and in terms of Lieberman’s intentions a good showcase for his arrangements.
The recording quality can’t be faulted.
Jonathan Woolf 

A certain lumbering quality inherent but fine playing, bold and confident.   

Performer details: Leader and principals
Beethoven: Jorja Fleezanis (violin); Stephanie Chase (violin); David Harding (viola); Arek Tesarczyk (cello)
Brahms: Stephanie Chase (violin); Alexander Kerr (violin); David Harding (viola); Adam Smyla (viola); Stephen Balderston (cello)
Haydn: Joan Blackman (violin); Maria Larionoff (violin); Mara Gearman (viola); Stephen Balderston (cello)
Mendelssohn: Maria Larionoff (violin); Timothy Garland (violin); Mara Gearman (viola); Stephen Balderston (cello)
Verdi: Alexander Kerr (violin); Jorja Fleezanis (violin); Adam Smyla (viola); Arek Tesarczyk (cello)