Notes & Reviews:
This is Quatuor Diotima's 3rd recording on Naïve, following 2 highly praised recordings dedicated to Onslow & the Viennese school. Step by step they are becoming one of the most renowned quartets of the time. This new program offers 3 very strong works from famous American composers, Reich, Barber & Crumb.
This is an eccentric collection of strange bedfellows... the Diotima's performance is a strong one.
Eloquent and tonal, it exudes a suavely Gallic influence. The Quatuor Diotima avoid supersweet sentimentalism and concentrate instead on clarity.
BBC Music Magazine
The conjunction of these three contrasting string pieces written across the 20th century proves useful, and stimulates thought. Furthermore, Hughes Deschaux's recording is terrific. It's vivid and warm with a generous sense of space... and you can't fault Pierre Morlet's cello, always singing and sorrowful.
The shrill, astringent tone of the violins... works to their advantage in realising George Crumb's "Black Angels for Electric Quartet", a dramatic, sometimes antagonistically cacophonous assemblage of 13 brief "images from the dark land", in places seemingly influenced by Bernard Herrmann's piercing score for Psycho.
Recording information: Théâtre d'Orléans-scène nationale, France (04/2011).
The first cut is Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’ and this has to be one of my favorite Reich pieces. I get into the first dozen or so measures and realize first of all, this is an amazing recording-the high end on the strings is to die for. They must be using$100,000 mikes. Second, there is a huge pan, the cello is sitting hard right and that 1st violin is hard left—where they should be in our post-pop world. Thirdly, did they re-EQ the tape part, because there seems to be more bottom end. Which led me to start A/Bing with the Kronos recording and this idiot review believes it sounds much better (but maybe I’m A/Bing with mp3s, so ignore me). Fourthly, the playing seems to really sit in the pocket of the groove on the tape part, especially in those tempo changes. Maybe after 22 years of listening to the piece, people are finally getting how to perform it better. As an aside, I know there is 2 prerecorded string quartets on the tape. Did Diotima rerecord them? And how does one sync all those tempo changes? Is there a click when you record the tape part? It has always been a mystery to me.
But enough about the players and recording. The music--I love The 1st movement pitched steam whistle-it is so stunningly effective, acting like a kinda of pedal that goes through all 7 related keys. I also love how the air-raid sirens of the second movement replace the train whistle as the pedal, and the return of train whistle towards the middle of the 3rd movement like a kind of sonata recapitulation.
Getting back to the drastic tempo changes (based on the text on the tape), my ancient criticism was it always seems so arbitrary and anti-intellectual (not part of some Carteresque tempo grid). But in the autumn of my youth, I see Reich’s musicality and instincts override all my Regerish pedanticism. There are so many beautiful little vignettes of music invention throughout the piece---tossing them off with a Mozartian casualness. It’s a casual assuredly that makes so much of his invention work, without being redundant or meandering. On paper, it should feel arbitrary, like the tempo changes, but in reality it all has its’ own sonic mystical propulsion. It’s also a very profound piece in the juxtaposition of the tragedy of the Holocaust with the everydayness of trains. It’s at once enigmatic, yet warm and very sad.
The second cut on the CD is Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B minor, the one famous for it’s adagio movement (which Kronos also recorded). It opens with an appassionataish contrast between motivic and melodic material not unlike Brahms or Beethoven. At once one is reminded by the deep conservatism that runs through a lot of America music from the period. It’s music for the common good or community and not for art snobs or city slickers. But Barber seamlessly moves past the conservatism to a kind of deeper conservatism, into still, unmoving repetition passages. It is the beginning of a new American primitivism also found in parts of Copland but most generously emanating from the much later minimalists. If one was to define Barbers style it is this juxtaposition of European narrative preoccupations with passages of simple repetition.
The second movement is the famous adagio with that great sustained 4-chord modulation which became the sort of American ‘Tristan’ chords. Sarcastically, it’s where every banker/housewife/tax collector/undertaker in the audience goes—‘yes this is my tragic life’. But genuinely, I say ‘hat’s off ‘to any music that has such a wide appeal and still keeps its integrity. It’s sentimentality is genuine and deeply thirties/forties Steinbeckian America.
The final movement is like a recap of the first movement. But again, simple repetition pokes its head out from the Europeaness. Here though, there is a ‘Transfigured Night ‘intensity in its’ old country influence. As for the Diotima Quartet, the playing throughout the Barber is amazing-- lots of dynamics, and intense rhythm with impeccable intonation.
The final cut is (drum roll, Kronos recorded it also) George Crumb’s ‘Black Angels’ (I always find a certain eccentric similarity with the cartoonist of the same name). Although Crumb insists his style is rooted in Debussy, Bartok, and Mahler, for me he is far more Ives Cowell, and Partch. (maybe also Ruggles for his fierce independence). There were Europeans doing similar things in the 70’s (including the Italians and Lachenmann) but in other ways it is uniquely American in its’ tonality, Ivesian juxtaposition and it’s theatrical component. There’s also a deep mysticism in this music, which is not unlike Hovhaness or Messiaen. As for the form, the piece consists of short movements between 50 seconds and 3:00 mins, the shorter movements acting as transitions. A lot of virtuosic, extended technique manifests throughout, and these players not afraid to get their hands dirty. Or scrap their bows. Or go for the most extreme dynamics. Yet, despite all the sonic gymnastics, the music is truly heartfelt and moving.
In conclusion this is a great CD—if you love these works, now love them more.The only real downside of the CD was the cover, which is the picture of a held revolver- which is the standard Eurocentric cliché concerning America. It’s doubly offensive given the great music inside.
Submitted on 11/07/11 by Mike Maguire
Submitted on 11/22/11 by Dan Coombs
Works DetailsReich, Steve : Different Trains, for double string quartet & tape
- Running Time: 27 min. 8 sec.
- Period Time: Contemporary
- Written: 1988
Barber, Samuel : Quartet for Strings in B major, Op. 11
- Running Time: 19 min. 5 sec.
- Period Time: Modern
- Written: 1936
Crumb, George : Black Angels (Images I), for electric string quartet
- Running Time: 1 min. 25 sec.
- Period Time: Modern
- Form: Chamber Music
- Written: 1970