String Quartets (Complete)
Ensō Quartet, with Lucy Shelton, soprano (Quartet 3)


Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) listed three periods in his development as “Objective Nationalism” (1934-1948), “Subjective Nationalism” (1948-1958), and “Neo-Expressionism” (1958-1983). His best known works, the ballets Panambí­ and Estancia, are from the first period, in which he consciously used the folk music of his own country as inspiration. Considering that fact, and since the musical world is still coming to grips with the original and exciting ways in which he combined what he’d learned in Period 1 with modernist trends such as serialism, microtones, and polytonality, it is good that each of the three string quartets we hear on this disc represents the height of each of Ginastera’s periods. That these performances by the U.S.-based Ensō Quartet are nothing less than sensational, pushing the envelop in terms of all a performing quartet can do in terms of ingenious phrasing and rhythmic vitality, is a definite plus.

I was really taken by the athleticism of this performing quartet, consisting of Maureen Nelson and John Marcus, violins; Melissa Reardon, viola; and Richard Belcher, cello. These young artists, who came together in 1999 while students at Yale, do exciting things with Ginastera’s technically intricate writing in Quartet No. 1 (1948), which includes accumulated trills and fascinating interactions between the players. In this rhythmically intense work whoseopening movement is marked Allegro violento ed agitato, the composer was obviously striving to go considerably beyond the simple folkloric level. The outer movements can be violent and frenetic sounding indeed, reminding us of the rough gauchos of Ginastera’s homeland.

Quartet 2 (1958) contrasts the pulsating rhythms of the outer movements with the quiet, anguished moments we find in the second movement, marked Adagio angoscioso, in which the music rises from a barely audible humming to a pronounced climax of great intensity. The middle movement (of five) is marked Presto magico, and brother, is it magic, with contrasted fragments tossed back and forth and with glissandi and pizzicati taken at speed. The fourth movement, marked Libero e rapsodico (free and rhapsodic) involves all four players in virtuosic roles: Violin I states the main theme, followed by a cello cadenza, a solo for Violin II, and then the viola plays the final variation. Agitated rhythms, perpetual motion, syncopations, and explosive outbursts of energy characterize the final movement, marked Furioso, a word that can imply madness as well as propulsion.

Soprano Lucy Shelton joins the Ensō in Quartet 3 (1973), and gives an incredible performance in a work making as severe demands on the vocalist’s art as it does the instrumental. Ginastera set poems by Juan Ramí³n Jiménez, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Rafael Alberti in four of the five movements. They are a rare synthesis of great poetry and great musical settings. La Míºsica (Jiménez) in movement 1 equates the awakening of love in a woman with the image of lilies in a starry firmament, shattering the darkness with a passionate cry of ecstasy. The final section alternates between lines sung normally and lines spoken as if in hushed amazement. The second movement, Fantastico, is a nocturne for the strings only, rising in intensity from a quiet beginning to a passionate chorus. In Movement 3, Amoroso, the music brings out the satire, bitter irony and sexual desire in Belisa’s song from Lorca’s play The Love of Don Perlimplin: “Love, love, / Between my secret thighs, / The sun swims like a fish. / Calid water through the rushes, / Love, / Cock crow and the night is fleeting! / Do not let it go. Oh, no!” In the fourth movement, the setting of Alberti’s Morir al sol (Death in the sun) calls for the singer to veritably shout with grief at the death of the soldier in an open field by the woods, then recreate the howling of a dog in lamentation for his death. Its demands pale, however, in comparison with the ending of the setting of Jiménez poem Ocaso (Twilight) in movement 5 which evokes a mood of sadness on the duality of music and silence, ending with Shelton’s sustained high note on the word eternidad (eternity) in the final line, followed by an even more sensational prolonged note breaking through the stillness of the night. That Ginastera originally wrote the vocal part in this quartet for the great American soprano Benita Valente speaks volumes for the skill required to realize it. That makes the present performance by Shelton all the more impressive.

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