Four American Quartets
Fine Arts Quartet
Naxos CD 8.559354
Ralph Evans’s String Quartet No. 1 had a protracted genesis; begun in his student days, it wasn’t completed until 1995. But the new Naxos recording by the Fine Arts Quartet, in which Evans performs as first violinist, suggests that Evans was wise to share the piece with the world. While there is a patchwork quilt of styles at work, from allusions to Stravinsky and Ravel and even (slightly more centric iterations of Berg, the piece contains lovely string writing and some wry, often delighting, harmonic swerves.
In addition to this in-house offering, the Fine Arts Quartet — Evans, violinist Efim Boico, violist Yuri Gandelsman, and cellist Wolfgang Laufer — present three additional pieces from 20th century America. The most familiar is Philip Glass’s
Second Quartet, “Company.” Named after a Beckett poem, it is cast in four brief movements. Each encapsulates one of the composer’s signature manners. The slow ostinato with a sustained upper line found in the 1st movement, the bustling
arpeggiations of the second movement, the fragile oscillations of the third, and the wave-like undulations of the finale are all likely to sound familiar to listeners even remotely familiar with Glass’s music. But what makes the Second Quartet so effective is the freshness and energy with which these gestures are employed. As brief vignettes, none overstay their welcome, a problem that occasionally arises in the minimalist composer’s protracted works.
More obscure repertoire is also featured. George Anthiel’s String Quartet No. 3, written in 1948, shows the eclectic maverick composer experimenting both with American folk music and the pastoral Americana then in vogue. The result sounds like a mash-up of Virgil Thomson and Antonin Dvorak at times; but the quartet’s deliberate angularity and even its occasional Bartokian bumptiousness contain considerable wit and charm. Bernard Hermann was best known for his film scores, but Echoes for String Quartet, written in 1965, demonstrates that the epic sweep of his cinematic style could also be applied with good results in chamber music.