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Pro Arte Quartet: The American Premieres

Hsu / Taylor / Pro Arte Quartet
Release Date: 12/10/2013 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1469   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Walter MaysPaul SchoenfieldWilliam BolcomJohn Harbison
Performer:  Brian HsuChristopher Taylor
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pro Arte Quartet
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

THE AMERICAN PREMIERES 2011–2012 Pro Arte Qrt; 1 Brian Hsu (pn); 2 Christopher Taylor (pn) ALBANY 1469/70 (2 CDs: 97:22)

MAYS String Quartet No. 2, “Dreaming Butterfly.” SCHOENFIELD 1 3 Rhapsodies for Piano Quintet. Read more class="COMPOSER12">BOLCOM 2 Piano Quintet No. 2. HARBISON String Quartet No. 5

The Pro Arte Quartet, celebrating its 100th anniversary as an entity, has evolved from a Belgian unit that played Schubert with Artur Schnabel and recorded a great many Haydn quartets for HMV to an American one whose members are all faculty artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This two-disc set collects some of the premieres they have made of American string quartets during the year 2011–12.

Walter Mays’s string quartet, titled Dreaming Butterfly, certainly evokes a dreaming (or sleep-disturbed) insect in its opening section, with light, fluttery notes in the violins and viola. As it wends its way along, it moves into slithering portamento effects and other such novelties in its pursuit of “differentness.” Mays is unquestionably adept at creating such effects, but is it music in the sense of evolving form or just music designed to make an impact of mood on the listener? That is your call. As for me, I didn’t feel that it conveyed anything structurally although it was engaging to the point where I wondered what effects he would invent next. The fast section uses counterpoint in an interesting manner, however briefly, before returning to mood-creation. Another section consists of fast, running triplets for the two violins while viola and cello play pizzicato behind them—another interesting passage, but one without either cause or effect in terms of structure. As I say, I found it interesting if occasionally musically vapid.

Paul Schoenfield’s Three Rhapsodies for Piano Quintet start with (if you can believe it) a “transformation” of the old rock ‘n’ roll song Get a Job. Interestingly, however, Schoenfield’s transformation is so thorough that, if you were not told this, you might never suspect it, not even when a snippet of the melody is thrown into the piece (at double the original tempo). Like his more famous piano trio, Café Music, Schoenfield has a remarkable ability to so alter and develop his pop-influenced sources that one stays glued to the music, surprised and delighted by what comes out. Unlike Café Music, however, the Three Rhapsodies are tonally thorny, utilizing bitonality and occasional atonal passages as the music flies by in a whir of quickly developing motion. Here is a unique, and uniquely American, musical mind bringing itself to focus on the basic material of a trifle and transform it into art. The opening rhapsody, then, is truly an extraordinary one. The second, the notes tell us, “is patterned after the traditional Hungarian lassú-friss (slow-fast) type rhapsody,” but not only in form. Melodically and harmonically, I found that Schoenfield here excellently mimics the basic harmonic-melodic style of Bartók or Kodály without actually borrowing from them, and moreover develops the themes in his own unique way. Indeed, as the piece developed, I heard a sinuousness of melodic transformation reminiscent of Barber and Schuman. I found it significant that Schoenfield titled this rhapsody The Bench of Desolation and based it on Henry James. Pizzicato cello signifies a change of mood and tempo from slow to fast, but this turns out to be temporary; the music then morphs into a slow, tonal lament in a minor that is indeed quite Barber-like. As it progresses, however, the harmonic base occasionally collapses, as it were, into close seconds and other uncomfortable tonalities, enhancing its desolate mood. The third rhapsody, Klezmorim, is based on the Yiddish-American style of happy music that developed in this country during the 1920s but disappeared by the early 1940s, but even from the first note it is much more rhythmically complex, contrasting rapid 16ths and triplets in the upper strings against the continually syncopated piano part. I should also mention that in this piece, guest pianist Hsu fits in with the quartet extremely well. A slower, quieter section in the middle of the movement evokes memories of Café Music but with bittersweet, minor-key harmonies based on Hassidic music.

William Bolcom’s Second Piano Quintet is more harmonically modern in the sense of continually shifting chords and a non-centered harmonic base than the much more familiar tonal style of his rags and operas. The composer wrote his own notes for this piece and explains that this was because he heard that the pianist who would be performing it was Christopher Taylor, whose bent is more towards modern music. As usual in Bolcom’s work, the piece is very well crafted and follows traditional lines of development, the lack of a fixed tonality notwithstanding. Here I found the music rather the opposite of Mays’s: It certainly has development that is audible and structurally sound, but in mood it remains somewhat one-dimensional. Would that the fine mood-painting of Mays and the keen structural sense of Bolcom could have been combined! Yet it is an interesting, well-written work. If one does not hear in it as rich a lode of mood and emotion, one conversely finds it a good piece worth hearing more than once, which is a recommendation in itself. I was particularly taken by the second movement, which shifts from slow-moving and somewhat desolate moods towards a rhythmic nudge that borders on syncopation, and this slight push remains in place even when the music becomes quieter and less evidently rhythmic. Downward violin glisses also contribute to the music’s overall ambience, and as the movement edges towards its conclusion it becomes sparser in its spaced-out notes, almost a devolution towards nothingness, at least until a final outburst by the strings moves it into the coda. Oddly, the Scherzo is the most ominous and edgy music of all—the “lively” or at least emotionally turbulent feeling one gets as one moves towards complete despair? The Finale, also bitonal, is more positive in mood, or at least mood-neutral as the music wends its way to the conclusion.

John Harbison’s Fifth Quartet is a remarkable piece, combining modern harmonies, fragmented melodic shards, and an unusual if discernible sense of construction. Sounding rather fragmentary in the opening of the first section (titled “Melodia I”), it actually develops along the lines of Beethoven’s late quartets, branching out into unusual bits that somehow all seem to fit together. Also like the late Beethoven quartets, its sense of evolution and connectivity of the different sections is not always immediately evident; one must recall bits of previous movements as it goes along, for only then does the full form make sense. Yes, Harbison utilizes certain effects in his string writing, slithering glissando passages and odd juxtaposed rhythms, but everything is tastefully done and very little of it sounds like a reaching for effect. The 10 movements follow one another without pause, although in a certain sense their rhythmic changes are often more varied than in Beethoven’s work, yet the strange mood of unease permeates everything in this work, even at those moments when the harmonies and rhythms settle down for a bit. By these means, Harbison keeps you listening and following his evolving musical train of thought as he goes from movement to movement, mood to mood, until he reaches his final denouement in the brief, final Ripensamento.

All of these works, in their own way, are challenging and serious, a credit to Pro Arte’s continuing commitment towards pushing boundaries in chamber music. The sound quality is quite natural, clear and crisp without being too closely miked, and all in all this is a fascinating set worthy of both the composers and the performers.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 2 "Dreaming Butterfly" by Walter Mays
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pro Arte Quartet
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Rhapsodies (3) for Piano Quintet by Paul Schoenfield
Performer:  Brian Hsu (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pro Arte Quartet
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Quintet for Piano and Strings no 2 by William Bolcom
Performer:  Christopher Taylor (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pro Arte Quartet
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Quartet for Strings no 5 by John Harbison
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pro Arte Quartet
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 

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