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String Quartets With Soprano / Valente, Juilliard Quartet

Release Date: 05/30/2006 
Label:  Bridge   Catalog #: 9192   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Richard WernickAlberto GinasteraJohn Harbison
Performer:  Benita Valente
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Juilliard String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 8 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

GINASTERA String Quartet No. 3. WERNICK String Quartet No. 5. HARBISON The Rewaking Benita Valente (sop); Juilliard Str Qrt BRIDGE 9192 (67:42)

What we have here are three string quartets, each with an added vocal part for soprano (along the lines of Schoenberg’s second quartet). These substantial works are performed by the artists for whom they were composed, with all the mastery Read more and familiarity with the material that that implies.

To take the American pieces first: Richard Wernick and John Harbison are both elders of the contemporary music scene (if you don’t use Elliott Carter as a yardstick, age-wise), and were well established when they wrote these works in 1995 and 1991, respectively. Harbison has written four “straight” string quartets to date, and is obviously well inside the medium. The Rewaking opens with a restlessly chromatic prelude and the same atonal angst pervades the entire work. Of the three composers, Harbison comes closest to Schoenberg’s stated aim of making the vocalist an equal voice, as opposed to an accompanied soloist. (Indeed, Harbison’s soprano is more integrated than Schoenberg’s.) The quartet is a setting of poetry by William Carlos Williams about the “rewaking” of spring out of winter. Because of the common theme, the four movements are less contrasted than is usual in a quartet. There is, nonetheless, a scherzo element to the second movement, “The Woodpecker” (where the strings effectively imitate the bird’s pecking in brusque, rhythmically irregular phrases).

Wernick’s quartet dispenses with the voice altogether in its two middle movements, opening and closing with slow, sometimes melismatic settings of brief, heartfelt poems by Hannah Senesh (written in Hebrew during the Second World War, in which Senesh perished, and set by Wernick in English). The non-vocal movements are both scherzos: the first, busy with savage motivic counterpoint; the second, a less coherent, almost panic-stricken deconstruction of its predecessor (reminiscent of the nightmarish scherzo movements in the Bartók canon). Dedicated to the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, Wernick’s distinguished work captures the frenzied, boiling hostility and deep-seated longing for peace that coexist in modern Israel.

Ginastera’s quartet is a late work, written in the period when he eschewed his Latin roots and deliberately embraced an expressionist avant-garde language, evident in the pointillistic string textures, harmonic clusters, and the use of melisma and parlando in the vocal part. This technique for technique’s sake, as it might be termed, by no means limits the composer’s expressivity; witness the full-blooded chorale that opens the third movement, Amoroso. (On a personal note, I still greatly prefer Ginastera’s earlier style.)

Soprano Benita Valente made her operatic debut at the Met in 1973, the same year in which she premiered Ginastera’s quartet. When these recordings were made in late 1999 and early 2000, the bloom of youth had gone from Valente’s voice and her vibrato had become wider. Nevertheless, she retains the artistry to do the music justice: secure pitch (particularly in the difficult wide-ranging lines of Harbison’s cycle), marvelous breath control, and a technique that enables her voice to fulfill the expressive demands made on it. The playing of the Juilliard Quartet is distinguished in every way, and the recording is clear and well balanced.

Other recordings exist of the Ginastera: Olive Blackburn with the Lyric Quartet (ASV) and Claudia Montiel with Cuarteto Latinoamericano (Elan). Both couple the work with the composer’s first and second quartets. I have not been able to sample these discs, but, based on their other releases, I would predict that the Latin American Quartet’s performance is the better of the two. Ginastera’s Quartet No. 1 is a terrific piece, incidentally, and well worth hearing. The Wernick and Harbison seem to be recording premieres: these are not the same works that appear on a highly regarded DG release featuring the Emerson Quartet.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 5 by Richard Wernick
Performer:  Benita Valente (Soprano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Juilliard String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1995; USA 
Quartet for Strings no 3, Op. 40 by Alberto Ginastera
Performer:  Benita Valente (Soprano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Juilliard String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1973; Argentina 
The Rewaking by John Harbison
Performer:  Benita Valente (Soprano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Juilliard String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1991; USA 

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