Charles IVES (1874-1954)
String Quartet No 1 “From the Salvation Army” (1896) [21:23]
Scherzo “Holding your Own” (1903-4) [1:36]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
String Quartet Opus 11 (1936) [16:36]
String Quartet No 2 (1907-13) [24:50]
Emerson String Quartet
rec. November 1990 (Ives 1, Barber) June 1991, New York, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 435 864-2 [64:40]
Originally issued in 1992, this stunningly performed CD should be an essential purchase for any Ives aficionado, while the Barber, from more than two decades later, provides both an unpredictable choice as the filler in this Ivesian context, and an unashamedly beautiful contrast. I have always been fond of Barber's emotional sincerity. He should surely receive more attention on the strength of his finest works, which are more numerous than one might imagine. Certainly, one could scarcely find a recording which gives more powerful advocacy to his String Quartet.
The dignified and relatively restrained performance of the famous Adagio (actually Molto adagio) demonstrates that this movement can be so much more impressive if it is not milked. Toscanini was surely perceptive in persuading Barber to arrange a version for string orchestra, for its deeply emotional character sits oddly between two much less distinguished movements. Significantly, in its string-orchestra version it is played a hundred times more than the complete quartet.
Ives' second Quartet has three movements sub-titled Discussions, Arguments and The Call of the Mountains. Movement 2 has many successive tempo indications, including Andante emasculata, Allegro con fisto, Largo sweetota, Andante con scratchy and Allegro con fistiswatto. Although the Emersons have a formidable reputation, there are some who object to their apparently effortless technical command. Reviewers of the Emerson Quartet's performances often find the cultured quality of their playing the most prominent characteristic. Their exceptional technical mastery can, it is true, result in some music - late Beethoven or Bartók spring to mind - sounding easier than it should, with some essential strenuousness removed. In the case of Charles Ives, however, feelings of struggle or conflict are in no way minimised in the Emerson's approach. The knotty, argumentative nature of the Second Quartet's middle movement, its stridency and intensity, are fully realised. Much of the finale is serene, though there are passionate stretches, and in both respects our quartet are magnificently committed, with superbly unanimous ensemble. Too beautiful? This alleged drawback in their playing never crossed my mind for a second. The dissonances in this finale are played uncompromisingly.
The tiny, experimental scherzo “Holding your Own” and the very early, thoroughly tuneful First Quartet both receive terrific performances, lucid, convincing and emotionally involved.
The recording quality is a model of warmth and clarity, while J. Peter Burkholder's booklet notes are excellent, far superior to many such offerings from the label.