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American Music for string quartet by Reich, Barber, Crumb / Quatuor Diotima

Album Summary

>Reich, Steve : Different Trains, for double string quartet & tape
>Barber, Samuel : Quartet for Strings in B major, Op. 11
>Crumb, George : Black Angels (Images I), for electric string quartet

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.

Gramophone Magazine
This is an eccentric collection of strange bedfellows... the Diotima's performance is a strong one.

Sunday Times
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 Independent
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.

Notes & Reviews:

Recording information: Théâtre d'Orléans-scène nationale, France (04/2011).


American Music/Quator Diotima/Naïve
Watch out Kronos, Quator Diotima is after you—and they are starting by rerecording your repertoire. Joking--don’t worry Kronos-- it’s all hyperbole to give the review a hooky start. Or is it? –this is one smokin’ hot group doing three American classics in an uber-musically convincing way.

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 
Exciting new performances of some modern American masterworks
Quatuor Diotima is a fairly new string quartet comprised by graduates of the Paris and Lyon conservatories and takes its name from a piece by Luigi Nono, Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima. So, implicitly, these young and talented performers have a strong commitment to the music of our time. This recording is a very exciting addition to the string quartet niche most regularly characterized by the Kronos Quartet. Each work represented has become a standard in modern American string quartet repertoire. Steve Reich's Different Trains is one of Reich's most chilling and captivating works. A pulsing, very train-like string canvas serves as the "reaction" to a series of prerecorded quotes from speakers who - at first - inform passengers in a train station in New York, for example, what train will take them where they want to go to and the mood shifts suddenly. The speakers' voices then are clearly discussing the trains that carried Jews to the concentration camps to their death; a very "different" train to be sure. Reich's trademark ability to find the pitch and rhythm in human speech and build small melodic cells around it works especially well in this work. The Samuel Barber String Quartet in b-minor is another American classic and quite different, of course, from the Reich. Barber wrote tonal, pensive music that almost always has a tender, reminiscent quality to it and his use of voicings and his choice of harmonies has given his music a sound that many describe as very "American" in its feel, similarly to the mood established by Copland. Barber's b-minor quartet also is the work containing the central movement that has now become, probably, his best known piece - the "Adagio" for strings. As beautiful and arresting as this movement is, it is a real treat to hear the work in its original context. The quartet itself is full of wonderful writing and memorable melody. The closing molto allegro begins almost casually, in response to that central adagio, before entering into a very brief, coda-like syncopated flourish. This is a very fine work and should be heard more often in this manner, with the famous adagio in its original setting. This collection concludes with the classic, nightmare-ish Black Angels for amplified string quartet by George Crumb. Written in 1970, this is, in many ways, archetypal Crumb. Filled with quotations evoking death or the underworld such as the Schubert Death and the Maiden and numerology, such as organized in groups of sevens and thirteens, this is an intentionally macabre, spooky and imagery laden work, played quite well her by the Quatuor Diotima. Congratulation to Diotima for recognizing the significance of these works and giving them authentic, heartfelt and bracing performances. It would not be appropriate to compare this disc to the iconic performances by the Kronos or - in the case of Crumb - the original New York String Quartet on CRI. Rather, here is a great opportunity to have these three "must have" pieces on a single disc played very well! (The cover photo of a man pointing a pistol is a little odd Even though it is from a Kubrick television, if there is symbolism intended I think I miss it) Good job, again, Naive recordings for producing this gem!
Submitted on 11/22/11 by Dan Coombs 
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Works Details

>Reich, 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