Fred LERDAHL (b.1943)
Music of Fred Lerdahl - vol.3
String Quartet no.1 (1978/2008) [22:38]
String Quartet no.2 (1982/2010) [23:11]
String Quartet no.3 (2008) [22:01]
Daedalus Quartet (Min-Young Kim (violin I/II); Ara Gregorian (violin II/I); Jessica Thompson (viola); Raman Ramakrishnan (cello))
rec. American Academy of Arts & Letters, New York, 20 December 2010 (no.3); 20 February 2011 (no.1); 15 April 2011 (no.2). DDD.
BRIDGE 9352 [67:53] 

This is the third volume from Bridge of the music of American composer Fred Lerdahl. Volumes 1 and 2 (9191 and 9269) featured both chamber and orchestral pieces. Lerdahl's innovative work, The First Voices, for eight percussionists and three female voices, appeared last year on Naxos (review).
Lerdahl's three String Quartets, his only ones so far, are closely linked to each other by design and material. During composition of the First, Lerdahl had the idea of a triple quartet cycle, which he abandoned as unworkable during the Second, and settled instead for a more modest double quartet sequence. However, by the time the Third was commissioned, Lerdahl had developed his so-called 'spiral' form theory - in simple terms, expanding variations, each one-and-a-half times the length of the previous - and he set about realising his original project, which also entailed revising the Second.
If all that sounds dusty and dry, the music itself is more memorable: the listener with little interest in the mathematics of it all need only know that the chord-length variation that opens the First is extended in duration and scope until the final variation of the Third, which itself occupies the entire Quartet. The conclusion of the cycle interpolates "distorted reminiscences from the first two quartets", with the coda a reprise of the opening of the First in reverse order. That said, all three Quartets are also stand-alone works.
The First Quartet is the only one of the three that has been previously recorded, in the late Eighties by its dedicatees the Juilliard Quartet (CRI 551). However, Lerdahl made some minor changes to it in 2008. In effect the Daedalus Quartet are giving a premiere recording of all three works. In accordance with Lerdahl's spiral idea, the variations begin with a brief chord, growing by fifty percent with each subsequent variation, an increase in complexity also evident. The First Quartet is, almost by definition, tentative, questioning, reflexive, and in most respects the least gripping of the trio. However, the last of the fifteen variations of the First lasts around six minutes, more than a quarter of the total length of the work, and by this time things are starting to get going, the music moving away from its academic origins towards a more emotionally satisfying experience.
The Second Quartet is developmental, flowing and relatively extrovert - and both more imaginative and somewhat more lyrical, attributable in part to the greater length of the variations. According to Lerdahl, each of the two sections of the Second consists of the following five parts: "(1) a quiet introductory section; (2) two parallel developmental sections of great intensity and contrapuntal complexity; (3) a whirlwind section that gradually dissipates the energy; (4) a slower, more lyrical passage followed by a pulsating but subdued scherzando; (5) an intimation of a chorale-coda."
The Third Quartet is the most intellectually intense and, as the work of an older, wiser composer, the most compelling as an independent item. It is at the same time more extravagant in its textures and turbulence, and more 'conservative', as it not only ties up threads but also takes a nostalgic stock-check of all that has gone before, ultimately returning to its very beginnings - or dust, if it may be taken as a metaphor for the human lot.
Lerdahl's music poses challenges to listener and performer alike. The idiom is frankly atonal, yet not mercilessly so - there are still plenty of snatches of melody, if not necessarily hummable in nature, and dissonance is neither relentless nor particularly harsh. Admirers of the string quartets of Schoenberg, Bartók, Webern or Schnittke should feel at home here - others will likely need more perseverance. As far as the Daedalus Quartet's interpretation goes, they deal with the leaps in dynamics, high tempo spurts, awkward rhythms and unpredictable phrasing with ease and poise, bringing a warmth of tone to music that in other hands could sound decidedly chilly.
Recordings at the AAAL are always of sterling quality, but here, surprisingly, there is some fleeting distortion evident in the loudest sections of the First Quartet. The CD booklet is neat and informative, producer David Starobin's notes on Lerdahl's Quartets well written. The Daedalus Quartet's biography is impressive, but readers probably did not need to have a quotation from every good review they have ever received, nor a list of every composer's music they have ever played and every venue they have ever appeared at.
The Quartets are allocated a single track each, which some listeners may find needless, not so say a minor irritation. The works are in continuous movements, but there are certainly pauses for breath, even in the final Quartet - plenty of scope for internal points of reference for the listener.  


Collected reviews and contact at
Challenges to listener and performer. Frankly atonal, yet not mercilessly so, melody, if not necessarily hummable, and the dissonance is neither relentless nor particularly harsh.