The Kernis Project
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No 9, Op 59 No 3, “Razumovsky” [32:24]
Aaron Jay KERNIS (1960-)
String Quartet No 2, “musica instrumentalis” [38:48]
Jasper String Quartet
rec. 7-9 May 2011, Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia, USA
SONO LUMINUS DSL-92142 [71:12]
Don’t let the clunky title or the awkward cover photo put you off: this is a fabulous disc. Its virtues are manifold: the bold programming of one of Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets with a 1998 work inspired by the Beethoven and written by Aaron Jay Kernis, the verve and energy of the Jasper Quartet, and the demonstration quality of the Sono Luminus sound. This is an urgent purchase for chamber music lovers.
Where to start? The Jasper Quartet members say that they formed over a mutual love of Beethoven’s quartet in C, Op 59 No 3, that it was the first work they presented in concert, and that furthermore they have played it on “the top of a mountain”: Sulphur Mountain in Alberta, Canada, where, says first violinist J Freivogel, “our fingers got quite cold”. I believe it all. This is a fantastic performance in every respect: the four players are very much equals, and they play with a gratifying combination of tonal polish and energetic enthusiasm. There are no rough edges or lapses in interpretive prowess. I will readily believe their claim to have banded together for the sake of this work, because if there is any word to describe the Jaspers’ playing in the outer movements, it is to say that they are reveling in it. The poignant andante contains no reveling, but there is no less heart.
Aaron Jay Kernis’ second quartet, “musica instrumentalis,” has but one major weakness, which is a predilection for goofy movement titles, heralded by Kernis’ uncapitalized name for the work. The first movement is a lengthy “Overture” which sometimes recalls the Beethoven in tone - vigorous, bustling activity with occasional optimistic, even sweet interludes. The second movement comprises two sarabandes, oases of calm, coupled with rather gratuitously gnarly, hostile transitional passages. They’re worth it for the absolute peace we feel at passages like those which begin around 4:00 and 8:00, and for the ultimate sense of a really important emotional journey.
It’s all capped quite satisfyingly by the finale, the best movement despite its clumsy title: “Double Triple Gigue Fugue.” Kernis tells us in his own note that this section does indeed contain a double fugue, a triple fugue, a gigue, and an unadvertised tarantella, all rolled up in both rondo and sonata forms (!). I’m not sure I am really prepared to believe this, but my ears need no study of the score to confirm that the movement is a winner. It’s highly sophisticated and rounds off the quartet well, but is more conventionally tuneful than the others. There are some Beethovenian gestures and developmental procedures — intentional, since Kernis’s inspiration for the movement is the Beethoven quartet which was the CD’s first half. At moments you can hear an upside-down version of Op 59 No 3’s fugal subject being given its own fugal treatment.
If there’s any fault to the score, it’s the length (over 38 minutes); the Overture definitely feels finished after a big pause five minutes in, though Kernis then conjures up a really wonderful melody and revives my interest. The coda of that movement is really invigorating, too - imagine an American Janác(ek - so maybe my quibble about the length is a quibble about my inability to see how point A leads to point B. That doesn’t change the fact that this is generally good and often extraordinary music. It gets better as it goes along, bold in tone, confident in sound, and absolutely convincing in its emotional structure. It is delivered with great power by the Jasper players.
So this album has something for everyone, with exceptionally well-played Beethoven and a contemporary sharing in the Beethovenian spirit, by turns knotty and thrilling. This is the Jasper String Quartet’s debut, and one must hope that much more is to come. Indeed, that bizarre title, “The Kernis Project: Beethoven,” suggests that more is to come. After all, it would be a grammatical faux pas if it wasn’t immediately followed up by, say, “The Kernis Project: Barber,” coupling Aaron Jay Kernis’ String Quartet No 1 “musica celestis” with another American quartet featuring a heart-tugging adagio, Samuel Barber’s. They could add Barber’s rare Serenade, Op 1 to bring the playing time up to an hour. And then, based on the sheer joyous energy the Jasper Quartet gives off like sparks, I’d suggest they commission something from Kernis inspired by Dvorák, Haydn, or even jazz. I would buy it. This playing is absolutely first-rate.
The Jasper Quartet gives off joyous energy like sparks. Don’t miss this album.