String Quartet CDs for the Holidays

December 18, 2007

So many and illustrious are the touring string quartets that pass through the Bay Area in any given season that it can be difficult to remember the ones that are here all year round. And so hard is it these days to find a browsable selection of classical CDs in a record store that you might be pardoned for thinking that the only one making recordings regularly is the Kronos Quartet.
In fact, the Bay Area is home to at least a half dozen other quartets of considerable distinction, and no fewer than five of them have released new recordings in the last year. Those who frequent chamber music concerts at Stanford, San Francisco State, San Jose State, and the San Francisco Conservatory (homes of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, the Alexander String Quartet, the Cypress String Quartet, and half of the Ives Quartet, respectively), or have been following the adventures of the New Esterházy Quartet in Haydnland, will likely know what these ensembles have been up to lately. For everyone else, here follows a brief rundown of their — and a few others' — recent contributions to the stubbornly not-dead-yet classical recording industry.
The Alexanders March On
Pride of place must go to the Alexander String Quartet's recording, on two three-CD sets issued by Foghorn Classics, of the complete Shostakovich quartets (Fragments Vol. 1, Foghorn CD1988, and Fragments Vol. 2, Foghorn CD1991). SFCV has been tracking the Alexanders' intense involvement with Shostakovich for some time (see our reviews in 2001, 2006, and most recently 2007), and by now their lithe, unexaggerated, consistently intelligent way with the composer's music is, or at least ought to be, familiar to Bay Area chamber music lovers. Still, listening through these six beautifully packaged discs is an adventure.

Alexander String Quartet: Fragments Vol. 2

The Alexanders play the more straightforward quartets (pieces like Nos. 1, 4, 7, and the ubiquitous 8) as cleanly and thoughtfully as you'd expect. There is perhaps less grit and rhetorical flamboyance than some will be used to — cellist Sandy Wilson, for example, doesn't make a meal of the "Jewish theme" in the finale of the Fourth Quartet in the familiar way — but the sinewy purposefulness of the playing is ultimately the more impressive for its self-containment.

You can see the full strength of the Alexanders' approach in the more awkward and discursive music. The Fifth and Ninth Quartets, both longish pieces without movement breaks whose loose construction makes them tricky to bring off, hold together unusually well; so does the notoriously varied finale of the Third. In the last few quartets, where the texture is ever sparer and the need for a strongly directed line most acute, the Alexander performances are uniformly solid. The famous all-adagio Fifteenth can, to some extent, carry itself on atmosphere alone, given a technically solid performance, but not the finicky Twelfth, which gets one of the standout performances of this set.

The playing is at the ASQ's customary high technical level. There are, to be sure, occasional places where the musicians are outclassed by the best of their competition. The end of the Tenth Quartet's scherzo, with its ferocious lines of octaves for first and second violins alike, isn't entirely in tune. (Nor is the movement anywhere near up to speed — granted, no one's really is, but the Alexanders' performance is slower than most.) This and a few other minor intonational mishaps here and there are, though, mere blips in what is for the most part a magnificent, sustained feat of quartet-playing.

Included in the first box of three discs is a finely drawn, intensely felt performance of the Piano Quintet, with the Alexanders' SFSU colleague Roger Woodward as pianist. The set lacks the Elegy and Polka for string quartet (the first based on an aria from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the second a transcription of the Polka from The Age of Gold), which are sometimes recorded alongside the 15 numbered quartets. But in their place are goodies considerably more enticing to anyone interested in the composer. One is a substantial (seven-and-a-half-minute) fragment of an unfinished quartet from ca. 1961. This is spare and rather static, rhetorically closer to the last three quartets than to the Eighth (1960) or the eventual actual Ninth (1964). It is not, I think, a viable piece in its own right, but fascinating to hear in this, its first and so far only recording.

Even more interesting, from a quartet player's standpoint, are ASQ first violinist Zak Grafilo's quartet transcriptions of four prelude-and-fugue pairs from Shostakovich's mammoth solo-piano cycle, the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87. These turn out to work exceedingly well. The fugues as well as (more surprisingly) their preludes sound as though they were made for the quartet medium, though I doubt many string players who didn't know the originals would be able to put a name to the composer. Quartets plunder Bach for individual fugues often enough — not just the Art of Fugue but also the Well-Tempered Clavier on occasion. Why not these? The bubbly A-flat-major pair, for one, is an absolute delight as transcribed here.

Throw in Foghorn's excellent sound, and a pair of booklet essays by Eric Bromberger that comprise easily the best overview of the Shostakovich quartets I've encountered, and you have a package that anyone remotely interested in this music would do well to check out. Kudos to all concerned.

Alexander String Quartet: Peter Michael Hamel

In quite another vein is the Alexanders' other recent release, a disc of string chamber music by the contemporary German composer Peter Michael Hamel on the Celestial Harmonies label (Celestial Harmonies 13278-2, listen to the album). A biography of Hamel is online (scroll down for the English-language text). It lays stress on the composer's interest in non-Western, especially Asian, musics and philosophies, concerns evident in the two quartets and one string trio on the disc. The three pieces, all from the 1990s, share a love of ethereal colors (harmonics are plentiful), a taste for brash, mixed-meter scherzos, and a spacious sense of time that suggests the intensity of meditative experience as well as its stillness. This is strong stuff, richly imagined and played with palpable care and understanding by the Alexanders.

Next up from the ever-industrious ASQ: a disc of music by San Francisco composer Wayne Peterson, intended as an 80th-birthday tribute but not released quite in time for the celebrations. Stay tuned.
Heeding the Call, Hearing the Response
If the Alexanders' mammoth Beethoven and Shostakovich cycles for San Francisco Performances have kept them very much in the public eye in recent years, the Cypress String Quartet has been commissioning up a storm over the same period. The quartet's "Call and Response" concerts — programs that include two "classic" string quartets, one in some way a compositional response to the other, along with a third, commissioned piece designed to complement them both — have led to the composition of a remarkable number of interesting new quartets. Every so often the ensemble commits one or more to disc, either on its own label or as an item on a single-composer CD.

The three most recent Cypress projects to be recorded illustrate the "Call and Response" concept's power to elicit strong and cunningly designed music from the quartet's chosen composers. SFCV covered one of the first performances of Jennifer Higdon's 2003 Impressions (recorded on Naxos 8.559298). The piece continues to impress me on hearing it again in the quartet's spiffy new recording; there's nothing groundbreaking here, rather an unfailingly elegant reflection on the French quartet as exemplified by Debussy and Ravel (its original program-mates) and continued by Milhaud.

Jeffery Cotton's String Quartet No. 1, which shared a 2004 Cypress program with the Higdon, appears on the quartet's own label (no catalog number), together with the Debussy Quartet and two early quartet pieces of Josef Suk (listen to the album). Here the reference-point pieces were Haydn's Op. 33/5 and Mozart's K. 421, and Cotton draws from them design elements ranging from harmonies (the bittersweet superposition of their two keys, G major and D minor, pervades the piece) to forms (Cotton's quartet ends, like its models, with a variation set) to textures. The piece is possibly a shade long, but continuously engaging and, like the Higdon, elegantly wrought for the instruments.

Cypress String Quartet: Spectral Evidence

Jay Cloidt's 2000 Spectral Evidence (recorded on MinMax MM015) doesn't appear to derive specifically from the "Call and Response" project, having been commissioned by ODC/SF to be choreographed by Brenda Way. But it, too, has a "classic" quartet model at the back, or rather the obsessed front, of its mind. The composer describes it as a deconstruction of the first movement of Mozart's G-Major Quartet, K. 387, and for once "deconstruction" is the apt word.

The Mozart is played unaltered through to the end of its exposition, but at the repeat strange things begin to happen — stutters, loops, weird emphases, and reiterations. The fabric of the piece comes gradually and inexorably apart, the stuff of it broken loose and roaming freely around the texture of its own accord. In the end, the Mozart pulls a shaky, half-tempo version of itself together, but the devastating devolution of the music into chaos and its repeated efforts to build something stable out of its own fragments are harrowing to hear.

Spectral Evidence's discmate, also performed by the Cypresses, is the 1998 eleven windows, originally a Kronos Quartet commission. It's a succession of brief, character-packed vignettes for quartet and taped sounds. Brenda Way choreographed this one as well for ODC/SF, and I imagine she had a great deal of fun with it. Obviously the quartet did. The movement in which the quartet plays in pitch unison with an Oakland garbage truck is a hoot, though the funky riff Cloidt made out of a looped tape of some London street kids throwing a toy tricycle up in the air to hear it smash back down is a close second. Cloidt has an ear, as well as a sense of humor, though, and mixes found and composed sounds with as much skill as glee. A neat piece.

Cypress String Quartet: Jennifer Higdon

Higdon's Impressions, meanwhile, shares its disc with the same composer's 2003 Piano Trio and an earlier (1993) string quartet titled Voices (listen to the album). The Trio's first movement is too pretty for words, sounding as if it's trying to out-Barber the Barber Violin Concerto, though the second is made of spikier stuff. Voices (played by an ad hoc quartet that includes the San Francisco Symphony's Melissa Kleinbart) is knottier than the other two works, but like them impeccably put together and immediately communicative.

The Debussy Quartet recorded alongside the Cotton is a tightly played and obviously loving performance. Relative to the best of its ridiculously numerous competitors on disc, it's a little pale in color, and hearing it side by side with the Cotton makes me think again that the Cypresses somehow bring extra resources to bear when playing the music they've engendered themselves. They play their own commissions with, if anything, greater stylistic confidence and wider imagination than they apply to music with a long performing tradition. (The two little Suk pieces, songful salon bonbons, don't offer much scope for interpretive point-making of any kind. They are charming in the Cypresses' sweet and adroitly balanced performances.)
More Emergent "American Classics"
The disc containing the Cypresses' Higdon recording belongs to the Naxos's "American Classics" series, an imprint that the label originally used for older American music but that has, in recent years, become substantially devoted to brand-new music by active American composers. Naxos' low price and (by classical-music standards) first-rate distribution are attractive to composers and performers alike, and the Cypress is only one of three Bay Area quartets with "American Classics" releases in the last year.

St. Lawrence String Quartet: Jonathan Berger

The St. Lawrence String Quartet records ordinarily for EMI, but its most recent disc is of music by Stanford composer Jonathan Berger (Naxos 8.559342, listen to the album). The two substantial quartets on the recording, Miracles and Mud and Doubles, both take pre-existing songs for their material (Palestinian and Israeli folksongs in the first, a collection of politically resonant folk anthems in the second), but Berger works more by allusion than direct quotation, and the sources rarely rise to the surface of the music. The string writing is taut, kinetic, sometimes quite virtuosic — comfortable territory, in other words, for the nervy St. Lawrence players. (They can do repose, too, as in the brief and this time outwardly songful Eli, Eli, a transcription of a song in memory of Daniel Pearl.)

On the same disc, the nimble violinist Livia Sohn, like Berger and the St. Lawrences a member of the Stanford faculty, takes on Berger's Sink or Swim and for amos, both for unaccompanied violin — two collections of brief impressions that make the most of the instrument's range and agility while admirably retaining a sharp and distinctive character. Berger and Sohn (who has another recent Naxos disc, of operatic fantasias, to herself) are both new to me, and I look forward to hearing more of each.

Ives Quartet: Quincy Porter

The Ives Quartet, meanwhile, contributes an "American Classics" disc more in the vein of the early days of the series: a recording of the first four quartets of Quincy Porter (Naxos 8.559305, listen to the album). This is forthright, open, gracefully designed music that belongs audibly to its time (the quartets here span just under a decade, from 1922 to 1931) without seeming to work at positioning itself in history as so many of that decade's better-known quartets do. The Ives' vibrant, clear collective sound suits the music uncommonly well; it's playing of stirring confidence that will have you wondering at intervals, "Why is this piece never played?"
Early Haydn From the New Esterházys
Speaking of things that are never played but ought to be, the New Esterházy Quartet, now roughly a quarter of the way through its traversal of the complete Haydn quartets, has just released a disc of performances drawn from the cycle (NEQ01, available via the quartet's Web site). The disc, featuring performances from July 1, Sept. 29, and Oct. 21, focuses on the earliest quartets, the 10 pieces collected as Opp. 1 and 2. Four of them (Op. 1/1 and 3, Op. 2/2 and 4) are to be found here.

New Esterházy Quartet: The Haydn Cycle, Vol. 1

Even Haydn enthusiasts tend to neglect the quartets before Op. 20, and especially these little divertimentos. But the New Esterházys demonstrate what care, attention, and a robust sense of fun can do for them. There's an alertness to the interplay of parts in the fast movements that reminds me why the earliest, French edition of these pieces styled them "Quatuors dialogués." The four slow movements, meanwhile, are all flat-out marvelous in their varied ways. I studied for a time with Emanuel Hurwitz, first violinist of the Aeolian Quartet, which recorded the complete Haydn cycle in the 1970s. He was scornful of the usual contempt for the early quartets, and told me: "Every single one of those early quartets has a gorgeous slow movement." It's the truth.

The recordings are minimally edited, mainly to remove extraneous noises, so there are some technical bobbles (Op. 2/2, in the ungrateful key of E major, has a number of distressing intonational lapses). But no one remotely interested in Haydn will want to miss this. The disc is encouragingly labeled "Volume One"; more, please.
Shooting Stars: A Season of Music@Menlo
For all the obvious advantages of stable ensembles whose members play and work together over long stretches of time, I suspect that a lot of the best chamber-music playing takes place at chamber-music festivals, where top instrumentalists, thrown together in the atmosphere of a musical half-holiday, learn and enjoy each other and the music at once. When the participants are at the starry level of Music@Menlo's invitees, something extraordinary is almost bound to happen. In fact, as the Bay Area's festival's 6-CD retrospective of 2007's concerts (Bridging the Ages, available via the festival's Web site) makes clear, the extraordinary at Music@Menlo is nearly routine.

Music@Menlo: Bridging the Ages

The discs don't include every performance on the 2007 festival's five evening programs, but the large majority are there. The pieces are regrouped on logical and space-efficiency grounds (piano trios from three different concerts are grouped on one disc, for example, while performances by the participating Miami and Escher Quartets occupy a disc apiece).

The repertoire preserved here varies from the familiar to the rare to the almost-new. The warhorses would ordinarily be the least enticing segment of a set like this, but for the quality of the best performances here. The Wu Han-led performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio, with violinist Joseph Swensen and cellist Ralph Kirshbaum (from July 23), for one, has a splendid sweep on a level with the best I've heard, in recording or live. The Miami Quartet's Schubert "Death and the Maiden" (from Aug. 3) is devastatingly refined and yet urgent; the Escher Quartet's Mendelssohn Op. 13 (July 23 again), while a shade generic, is still high-level quartet playing. And baritone Christòpheren Nomura sings a heartfelt Bach Ich habe genug.

The San Francisco Conservatory's Ian Swensen (brother of Joseph) contributes a characteristically nervy Ravel Sonata with pianist Gilbert Kalish (from Aug. 9), while a Brahms G-Minor Piano Quartet from the same program, led by Kalish, tempers impetuosity with fierce control. Saint-Saëns' Le carnaval des animaux (from July 27) finds everyone having a grand good time, though composer Bruce Adolphe's new verses (recited in the performance) have, sadly, been edited out.

Still, it's the rarer material here that's the real treasure. Pride of place, for me, goes to a Bottesini Gran duo concertante for solo violin and double bass with string quartet (from July 29): bassist Daxun Zhang lightly working impossibilities, violinist Erin Keefe tossing off rows of octaves so purely tuned that you have to strain to perceive the upper note, and the Eschers lending juicy support. Then there's a febrile Korngold Suite for piano left hand, two violins, and cello from the same concert, led by pianist Gary Graffman, and a sharply turned out performance of Copland's seldom played, quarter-tone-laced piano trio Vitebsk from Aug. 9.

A Boccherini guitar quintet, with Jason Vieux and the Eschers, shows its partial origins in a cello quintet with a wickedly high cello part, tossed off by Escher cellist Andrew Janss without apparent effort. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy sounds just right, light and pert and ever alert to words, in a handful of Beethoven's Scottish song settings with piano trio. ("Oh! sweet were the hours" turns out to be the tune better known, in Haydn's setting, as "O can ye sew cushions"; Beethoven's accompaniment is delightful, more intricate than Haydn's.)

The two most recent pieces here both get performances of striking polish and confidence. The Miami Quartet imparts to Bruce Adolphe's 1992 Quartet No. 4, "Whispers of Mortality," a sustained intensity through which the ensemble's native beauty of sound nonetheless never wavers. The Adolphe — a five-movement meditation on human physical frailty, prompted by the serious illness of a family member — is a piece I want to hear again, and soon. Heidi Grant Murphy and her husband, Kevin, meanwhile, perform Marc Neikrug's slender 1995 Pueblo Children's Songs with the loving dedication you'd expect, given that the soprano
commissioned and premiered the work.

There's more in there, too much to mention, and all of it terrific (well, maybe not the disconcertingly steely, brawny rendition of a Handel keyboard concerto, though even that is oddly fascinating). The recordings, all produced by Da-Hong Seetoo, are lovely — fairly close but resonant, and with a minimum of audience noise. Good, if terse, program notes are provided, but no texts or translations for the vocal works, which is too bad; notwithstanding the excellence of the singers' diction, we could use a little help even with the Scots, never mind the German and the Tewa. Maybe next year?
... And Brahms, From Two Who Went Away
Finally, a quick mention of recordings by two great ex-Bay Area chamber musicians snatched from our midst by great string quartets. Longtime San Francisco Symphony principal violist Geraldine Walther left the orchestra for the Takács Quartet two years ago, so that those of us hooked on her peculiarly heady viola sound have had to make do with the ensemble's occasional visits (the last was to Berkeley's Hertz Hall on Dec. 2, courtesy of Cal Performances) and recordings.

Takács Quartet and Stephen Hough: Brahms

The latest, Walther's second with the quartet, features the Brahms A-Minor Quartet and the F-Minor Piano Quintet with Stephen Hough (Hyperion CDA67551). It is radiant Brahms playing, transparent and teeming with detail, but also touched with tenderness in a way that humanizes some of Brahms' more severe chamber writing, without in the least letting it go slack. There is an unusual amount of genuinely quiet, almost private playing. On the other hand, there is ferocity to strain the limits of the instruments (the end of the Quintet's scherzo comes to mind).

Cellist Clive Greensmith, unlike Walther, was barely here long enough for his departure even to have been felt as one: He had been on the San Francisco Conservatory faculty for only a year (1998-99) before becoming cellist of the Tokyo Quartet. The ensemble has recorded a fair bit since — its remake of the Beethoven Op. 18 Quartets for Harmonia Mundi, which I've not yet heard, was released last month — but perhaps of more interest to those who heard Greensmith by himself the year he was here will be his first solo recital disc, also just released.

Clive Greensmith: Brahms and Schumann

On the Biddulph label (Biddulph 80226-2), it contains the two Brahms sonatas and Schumann's Fünf Stücke im Volkston. The pianist is Greensmith's Yale colleague Boris Berman, playing a lovely, mellow, 19th-century Bechstein. Greensmith tells me that he restrung his cello with gut in an attempt to blend more effectively. Certainly his sound, powerful as ever, has here an unusual plangency. His playing is occasionally impetuous, always vocal. In the odd little Schumann pieces (slight but annoyingly tricky) and in the imposing F-major Brahms there is just enough sense of struggle to remind you of the physicality of the music. Greensmith could play a magnificent Brahms F-Major Sonata back in 1998, but this new recording is more deeply considered and better understood than my memory paints that performance. This one is something to treasure.

A note to readers interested in obtaining any of these recordings is in order. Brick-and-mortar stores stocking out-of-the-way classical recordings are few and far between now, although those that still exist, such as Berkeley's Musical Offering, are often happy to special-order music. But even online shoppers are not going to find everything in this article in one place. Amazon, ArkivMusic, and CD Universe (where I first learned of the Cypress Quartet's Cloidt disc via browsing the new-release listings) each stock some of these recordings, but not all, and each of them carries a different subset. If a disc is proving troublesome to find, it's generally a good idea to try checking the quartet's (or composer's) Web sites. If they don't sell their own CDs themselves, they will usually link to a business that does, or at least provide a contact e-mail through which you can ask where to go. Finally, as a aid in sampling the music before purchasing, we've provided links to Napster, which allows you to (legally) listen to any recording in its library three times free before purchasing a download or subscribing to its service.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.