This is Jeremy Beck's fifth CD for Innova in less than ten years, a remarkable enough fact in itself, but all the more surprising in that Beck could hardly be further from the street-smart experimentalist typical of Innova's musician stable. In the notes to his previous disc - a multi-coloured collection of chamber works (review
) - Beck is happy to admit that he is "not a radical composer", preferring to write music which is "direct and communicative". Though there were one or two more serious pieces on that recording, the overall tone was thus one of blithesome, upbeat listener-friendliness, with straightforward emotional appeal usurping any substantial intellectual claim. Occasional sallies into derivative TV movie soundtrack territory were easily excused by the fact that Beck is a practising attorney.
This disc of string quartets is not a huge departure. Again, Beck does not plumb any emotional depths or otherwise reveal any great insights into the human condition. His work does not even offer unforgettable tunes. What it does do is dispel lingering prejudices with regard to new music - it is not all heavy-going, pretentious, portentous, noisy or whatever other negative adjectives certain elements like to ascribe to it. Beck has instead the instant communicativeness that comes from structural clarity, rhythmic vitality and melodious tonality.
In the quartets there is barely a passage anywhere that could not in theory have come from scores going back a century - which is not to say that they sound second-hand or unimaginative. They are, on the contrary, clearly part of Beck's attempt at more serious music. With the more recent Fifth, there is a distinct enrichment of expressive layering which bodes well for any future returns Beck makes to this genre.
The composer's own notes give fairly detailed accounts of the works, possibly a bit on the technical side for many listeners, but including information on premieres and revisions. Unfortunately, this information is not set in any broader context - what is the appeal of the string quartet medium, what happened to Quartet no.3, how many quartets has Beck written altogether and the like. In fact, there is no further biographical data on the composer. Arguably too much space is given over to performers - do listeners really need to know, for example, that San Gabriel's violinist Julie Metz has "toured the world extensively with Yanni and his Orchestra"?
As it happens, in the detail of the Nevsky Quartet's biography lies the answer as to why Beck's Third Quartet (a.k.a. Shadows and Light
) is absent from this disc - the Nevskys have already recorded it for Innova (696, review
). At fourteen minutes, it could easily have fitted on the present CD, giving listeners a complete survey at practically no cost to anyone. Be that as it may, its two movements can be downloaded from Innova directly for only two dollars. As one of Beck's most expressive works, it is well worth having. The rest are too, for that matter, especially as performed by such committed musicians, and will appeal especially to anyone looking for a rose-petal-strewn path into contemporary art music.
As far as audio quality is concerned, Innova are almost peerless in the fastidiousness of their mastering - even the Russian-origin recording is immaculate. There seems to be some minor added reverberation in places, but it is hardly worth mentioning.
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