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Quincy PORTER (1897-1966)
String Quartet No. 7 (1943) [15:40]
String Quartet No. 5 (1935) [17:47]
String Quartet No. 6 (1937) [18:11]
String Quartet No. 8 (1950) [14:20]
Ives Quartet (Bettina Mussumeli (violin 1); Susan Freier (violin 2); Jodi Levitz (viola); Stephen Harrison (cello))
rec. 23-28 May 2008, 5 April 2009, 16 May 2012, St Stephen’s Church, Belvedere, California, USA

The distinguished Ives Quartet is acclaimed for revelling in the unfamiliar and championing an eclectic repertoire, mixing established masterworks with neglected compositions of early-twentieth-century America, and commissioned new pieces.

This is the second volume of the Naxos series devoted to the nine string quartets of Quincy Porter. The first volume contained quartets 1 to 4 and here we have numbers 5 to 8. I should get the main complaint out of the way and point out that since the 9th quartet lasts under 14 minutes, it could have been squeezed on to the disc.

That first issue was much praised, and if Naxos is to complete the cycle with Quartet No.9 there are several Porter works for other chamber formations to fill out a disc. Porter is probably best known – insofar as he is still much known at all - for his orchestral music. His chamber music has the same essentially conservative, tonal, neo-classical style, immediately appealing and with slightly less of the acerbities of the European neo-classicists. The works are compact - no movement here outstays its welcome, as all but two are six minutes or less. Porter was a professional string player in the 1920s, and played violin and viola in orchestras and quartets. He knew this medium from the inside and it shows throughout, the string writing always sounding suavely idiomatic, with none of the violence that Bartók could ask of the instruments.

The Seventh Quartet has a most persuasive opening – maybe that is why it is placed out of sequence to begin the CD, which no-one told the booklet note writer. Indeed this first movement of the Seventh has some of the most cogent music of all 11 tracks on the disc. The initial easily-flowing bittersweet mood is typical of these works, but soon gathers pace and tension. Transitions are subtly achieved between sections – there are few sudden gear-changes in Porter’s mature string quartets. The second movement is a troubled adagio molto whose mood rarely lifts. The finale is more affirmative, especially at the close.

The Fifth Quartet opens with an adagio non troppo which gropes forward to reach a restless allegro moderato, featuring one of Porter’s rhythmic tics that persist through subtly shifting moods until its sudden expiry. The ensuing andante calmo has a touching melody and haunting atmosphere, while the finale’s headlong allegro molto can still accommodate some lyrical passages. The Sixth Quartet has a lighter manner despite the contrapuntal skill displayed in both the opening and second movements. The latter is a searching and eloquent adagio whose disquiet is banished by a spirited and rustic-sounding finale.

After these three three-movement works, the Eighth Quartet is in one continuous sweep, passing from lento to allegro and closing with a substantial adagio molto espressivo which is about a third of the overall length. This music communes with the listener in the manner of late Beethoven, drawing us into its introspective world. It makes a fine close to this set of very sophisticated works, which are well worth getting to know and reward repeated close listening. The set might well be the equivalent of say, the symphonic cycles of Harris or Piston as a contribution to a single genre in twentieth century American music – and is more consistent than either.

The Ives quartet plays splendidly throughout, sounding completely at home in the idiom, with many eloquent solos and truly chamber musical interplay. Porter can rarely have had more committed advocacy than these players bring to their work on this disc. The recorded sound is good, the players placed at just the right position in the sympathetic acoustic. If the loudest passages can sometimes be a touch shrill, that is not frequent or troubling enough to detract from one’s delight in so much of the music.

The notes by Richard Whitehouse are very helpful, and at bargain price this is highly attractive to anyone curious about this intriguing area of the quartet repertoire.

The Naxos discs, this one and the earlier issue of quartets 1 to 4, leave the cycle incomplete. In any case Naxos and the Ives do not have the field quite to themselves. There was an earlier complete cycle from the Potomac quartet issued on Albany Records (TROY918) in 2007 which managed to get all nine works, plus some other short pieces by Porter for the medium, on to just two (full-priced) discs. That is also very well played indeed, and a few movement comparisons even suggest the Potomac digs a bit deeper, with several quick movements a little swifter and slow movements a little slower. The recording is closer and dryer, more intimate than the Naxos.

Roy Westbrook

Naxos American Classics reviews



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