Maria NEWMAN (b.1962)
String Quartet No. 2 Lauds (1998) [15:03]
String Quartet No. 1 The Birthday of the Infanta (1995) [40:25]
Malibu String Quartet (2)
Kairos String Quartet (1)
rec. 2014, Montgomery Arts House for Music and Architecture, Malibu, USA

It’s always intriguing when a CD comes along for review featuring an unfamiliar name, and that’s precisely what we have here. Even the label is one I’ve never come across before. The composer is Maria Newman, born 1962 in Los Angeles, California, whose father was the Hollywood film composer Alfred Newman. She’s amassed an impressive list of compositions including orchestral music, ballet, chamber, vocal and choral works. I was interested to discover that she’s also written scores for vintage silent films. If that weren’t enough, she’s a critically acclaimed violinist, violist, pianist, teacher and conductor, playing first violin in the Malibu String Quartet who perform here.

The two Quartets are programmed in reverse order on the disc. The reason may be that the five movement String Quartet No. 2 has gained a certain popularity, and is one of the composer’s most frequently performed works. Working to a commission from the Icicle Creek Music Festival, it was premiered in 1998 by the Kairos Quartet. It’s title Lauds means ‘from darkness to light’. With Newman herself leading this performance, the work kicks off with an impressive upward violin flourish, which greets us several times throughout the first movement. Tuneful and lively, yet with its more dramatic and passionate moments, it’s a pleasing listen. The ardent lyricism of the second movement provides a soothing balm. The central episode is a sort of folk dance with a notable Bartókian flavour, which the Malibus invest with a riveting rhythmic swagger. In the following movement Newman makes use of pizzicatos, and the general temper is one of busy geniality. In the Intermezzo the composer provides a cadenza, an opportunity to showcase her impressive violinistic prowess. The finale is joyous and buoyant, with the players delivering generous helpings of verve and vigour.

The String Quartet No. 1 was composed for the inaugural season of the Icicle Creek Music Festival in 1995, where the Kairos Quartet did the honours. The work is cast in six movements and is a much lengthier affair than its successor. Tonally orientated, it makes use of modality and chromaticism, and it’s certainly not as accessible as Lauds. Newman has been frequently drawn to the fiction of Oscar Wilde, which has been the source of inspiration for several of her compositions. Here she turns to the author’s ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’, which depicts ‘a kind and trusting Dwarf, who is tricked into dancing for the guests of the 12th birthday party of the Princess of Spain, (the Infanta)’. The Quartet is programmatic, the movements relating the various episodes of Wilde’s opus:-

1. The Party – Carnival
2. The Bullfight
3. The Dance of the Dwarf
4. The Forest and the Minuet
5. The Search and the Mirror
6. Finale: The Death of the Dwarf

Newman’s imagination and ingenuity make their mark in the vivid, colourful scoring. In The Bullfight, for instance, powerful rhythms abound. The Dance of the Dwarf has a grotesque air about it, with the music summoning up some feverish coruscations. Vivid effects such as the use of the wood of the bow on the strings and luminous harmonics are particularly enchanting in The Forest and the Minuet. The Kairos Quartet make a compelling case for this seductive and intensely captivating score.

I enjoyed these two Quartets, recorded in top class sound with ideal balance between the four players. I would certainly now be eager to explore more of Newman’s music.

Stephen Greenbank
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