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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
String Quartet in B minor, Op 11 (1936) [18:33]
Original finale to the string quartet (1936) [5:28]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
String Quartet No 1 ‘From the Salvation Army’ (‘A Revival Service’) (1898-1909) [21:27]
Scherzo ‘Holding your own’ (1903-4) [1:23]
String Quartet No 2 (1911-15) [26:01]
Escher String Quartet
Rec. 2019, Potton Hall, Westleton, UK
BIS BIS-2360 SACD [74:15]

On this side of the pond we rarely hear American string quartets, so a disc of three by two of the big names of American music is very welcome. They are, however, very different composers; Barber (no relation) was a neo-Romantic, while Ives, a generation earlier was a maverick experimentalist, outside the mainstream of musical life.

Barber’s only string quartet was written when the composer was a young man. The first movement begins with a vigorous opening theme in unison on the four instruments and then moves through a variety of moods, always with interesting material. The Molto adagio second movement is the original version of what became Barber’s most celebrated work, the Adagio for Strings. This is a piece which occupies somewhat the same place in American musical life that Elgar’s ‘Nimrod,’ from the Enigma Variations, does in British. It is indeed a beautiful piece, perhaps even more attractive in its original version than in the later arrangement for string orchestra. The composer called it a ‘Knock-out’ in a letter the day after he finished it. He then had problems composing the finale. He discarded his original idea, a cheerful rondo with a slow introduction, and replaced it with a short movement using material from the first movement. On this disc the Escher string quartet play the final version but then add the original finale, which is well worth hearing.

Charles Ives’ two quartets also come early in his compositional career. Ives said that the first quartet dated from 1896, when he was a student, but more recent research suggests that this was the date of some early works which he drew on, that two of the movements come from 1897-8 while the rest from 1909. Be that as it may, this is an attractive tonal work which shows Ives in full command of traditional compositional techniques. The opening movement is a fugue, about which Ives later had his doubts. He removed it, instead reusing it in his fourth symphony, but later allowed its reinstatement. The remaining movements are all in ternary form and draw on traditional hymn tunes, sometimes quoted direct and sometimes considerably varied.

Between this and the second quartet, both chronologically and on the disc, comes the short Scherzo. This also draws on traditional tunes, popular songs in this case, and is a clever little number.

The second quartet is made of sterner stuff. Ives himself described it a string quartet ‘for 4 men – who converse, discuss, argue, fight, shake hands, shut up – and then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament.’ Again there are borrowings from previous material, this time also including passages from Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. The idiom here is modernistic, with a plentiful use of dissonance, with harmonies which suggest Berg and rhythms which suggest Bartók. However, the most characteristic works of those composers come later than this, and in fact I found myself thinking of Berg’s Lyric Suite for string quartet, which dates from 1926. However, priority is not an aesthetic quality and, though I enjoyed the work, I have not yet been convinced that it is completely coherent. This is a problem I have had with a number of pieces by Ives, while others seem convincingly achieved. However, it seems to have attained classic status and I am not going to demur.

The performances by the Escher String Quartet are excellent. They were part of the BBC New Generations Artists scheme some years ago and have gone on to a flourishing concert and recording career. They play with great assurance and also subtlety and I really enjoyed these performances. The recording is a SACD but I listened in ordinary two-channel stereo, and in this form it had a lovely bloom. The booklet notes are very helpful, though the picture of the quartet on the back is of the latest line-up, in which Brendan Speltz replaces Danbi Um as second violin, whereas it is Um who plays on the recording.

There are other recordings of these works. The Emerson Quartet, for example, offer an almost identical programme; this was made in 1992, though without the discarded finale to the Barber quartet, which is worth having. And there are other recordings of just the Ives or the Barber with different couplings. However, anyone choosing this version should be well satisfied.

Stephen Barber

Escher String Quartet: Adam Barnett-Hart and Danbi Um (violins), Pierre Lapointe (viola), Brook Speltz (cello)

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