The Cypress String Quartet have assembled an excellent and
thought-provoking bundle of American music for this self-released
program. We’ve got one obvious favorite, Dvor(ák’s “American”
quartet, one slightly less obvious favorite in the string quartet
of Samuel Barber - from which he adapted his Adagio for
Strings - and one genuine rarity, by the marvelous early
20th century composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes.
These three pieces make for an excellent program, and if you
can adapt to some peculiarities in the sound you will enjoy
Let’s treat the sound first: something about the recording makes
the highest notes, including most everything by the first violin,
sound artificially papery and high, with a kind of rough edge.
It’s hard to describe, but it certainly does not sound normal;
the ear adjusts gradually, and now that I’ve heard the CD several
times the quirk is only occasionally bothersome.
It’s a pity, too, because the Cypress are really excellent throughout
the program. Their Dvor(ák is fresh, lively, and sensible, not
as unique as the Pavel Haas Quartet’s last year but not average
by any means. The players are clearly enjoying digging into
the rhythms and making the tunes feel like their own. The Barber
quartet, too, is extremely finely done, the work’s dark emotions
conveyed with enormous power, even in the tiny (two-minute)
finale. I’d be hard-pressed to think of an orchestra which wrings
out the emotion of the Adagio for Strings with the
power and focus the Cypress Quartet bring to the adagio in its
original form here.
Dividing the Dvorák and the Barber are Griffes’ Two Sketches
on Indian Themes (1918-1919), which total up to a modest
ten minutes. Griffes was an ingenious composer who died far
too soon, in 1920, aged just 35, leaving behind a few impressionistic
orchestral works and a truly thrilling piano sonata which somehow
pairs well with Scriabin, Liszt, Prokofiev, and Gershwin.
His Two Sketches are wonderful miniature quartet-pieces
which call to mind not just Dvor(ák but Szymanowski and Janác(ek,
and in the finale there’s a hint of Prokofiev’s rhythms overlaid
with Dvorák-style tunes. Like a lot of Griffes’ music - the
extraordinary piano sonata, in particular - this evocative piece
really deserves to be programmed much more often than it is.
The Cypress players don’t have much competition: the Budapest
Quartet recorded it live at the Library of Congress in 1943
(now on Bridge Records) and the piece appeared in a Vox Box
along with a string quartet dubiously attributed to, of all
people, Benjamin Franklin. Incidentally, the most compelling
argument for Franklin’s authorship is that the piece is too
badly written to be by a real composer, which, having heard
the work, I can readily believe.
I’d like to recommend this without any reservations, for the
wonderful program - its merits make its brevity irrelevant -
and for the ardent advocacy given Barber and Griffes. The Cypress
String Quartet really is an ensemble with spontaneity and camaraderie.
I just wish that the recording engineer had figured out what
was going wrong with the treble. One to sample out of curiosity,
and MP3 buyers had better grab the Griffes straightaway.