The American Album
Antonin DVORÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No 12 in F Op 96, American [24:26]
Charles Tomlinson GRIFFES (1884-1920)
Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes [10:01]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
String Quartet in B minor, Op 11 [17:17]
Cypress String Quartet
rec. date not provided, Skywalker Sound scoring stage, California, USA
CYPRESS STRING QUARTET (no catalog number) [51:44]
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 this immensely.
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.
Wonderful program, spontaneous ensemble, wacky acoustic.