These classic recordings of the Ives Quartets, as far as I know, have not been issued on CD before now. In the 1960s the Juilliard Quartet had few rivals in this repertoire and their performances set standards for those to come. I should note here that Raphael Hillyer, the original violist with the quartet, died very recently at the ripe age of 96. These recordings of the Ives quartets have not lost any of their luster. They are marvelous performances in excellent sound.
The String Quartet No. 1 was the composer’s first major work. Although he wrote it as early as 1896, it did not receive its first public performance until 1957, three years after Ives’ death. This is listener-friendly Ives, filled with snatches of hymns andRead more other familiar tunes and not knotty as his later works, including the String Quartet No. 2, were to become. Although it is unmistakably Ives, it also sounds at times like Brahms and Dvo?ák. The work’s fugal first movement has an interesting history. Apparently Ives decided to detach it from the quartet and use it as the third movement of his Symphony No. 4, where it remains today. However, when the quartet was first published in1961 the first movement returned to its proper place. The quartet has been performed in this four-movement form ever since. According to David Johnson, who wrote the original liner notes, Ives gave the four movements of the quartet, often subtitled, “A Revival Service,” the following “churchly titles”: Fugue,Prelude,Offertory and Postlude. The printed score, though, eliminates these and gives only the tempo markings.
The Quartet No. 2 shows an entirely different side of Charles Ives. Whereas the earlier work was highly melodic and Romantic, the Second Quartet is more aggressively modern-dissonant and largely atonal. It also contains snatches of songs, such as Dixie and Columbia the Gem of the Ocean, and no little humor. Near the end of the second movement, the quartet stops to tune up before closing with two crashing chords. At one point in this movement there is a brief quotation from the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Ives retained titles for the three movements: I-Discussions (Andante moderato), II-Arguments (Allegro con spirito), and III-The Call of the Mountains (Adagio). The quartet is also programmatic. Ives wrote the following after the work’s title: “…four men-who converse, discuss, argue, fight, shake hands, shut up-then walk up to the mountain side to view the firmament!”
These being two of Ives’ most important chamber works, it is strange that they have not been recorded more often-especially compared to the songs and symphonies. Of more modern recordings, the one that most closely approaches the benchmark the Juilliard has provided is that by what many consider today’s leading American quartet, the Emersons. Their recording on DG also contains a very brief Scherzo, called “Holding Your Own,” that Ives composed in 1903-04, and Samuel Barber’s String Quartet, Op. 11 containing the original version of his famous Adagio. Those performances are perfectly fine as a whole, even if they do not quite possess the dramatic edge or the nuances of the Juilliard. The main advantage of the Emerson disc is that it contains over an hour of music very well played and recorded. That said, the re-mastering for CD of the Juilliard recording is very successful and the sound is as good as that for the Emerson. I have not heard the accounts by the Blair Quartet on Naxos, but they have received positive reviews as well, including Dominy Clements' review on this website. You pays your money and takes your choice! The notes for the Juilliard CD are from the original LP and the presentation is first class in every way.
There are several other fine recordings of these two remarkable quartets--not nearly as many as there should be--and they all include additional works that may entice some listeners to choose their fuller programs over this 49-minute recital. But that would be a mistake, for these performances by the Juilliard Quartet are exceptional in their refinement and detail, their vibrant ensemble character, and, especially in the First quartet, their respectful attention to Ives' thematic material, never artificially punching up the spontaneous hymn-tune bits nor overworking the more integrated developmental passages.
The very articulate playing allows unusual but essential clarity among the four parts, and the group's Ivesian sensibility appreciates the background programmatic concept of "A Revival Service" (First quartet) and the underlying "story" of the Second quartet's four men "who converse, discuss, argue, fight, shake hands, shut up--then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament!", but always celebrates each work's most compelling musical attributes.
Although the First quartet was written in 1896, not untypically for Ives' music its premiere wasn't until many decades later--in 1957. The Juilliard's recording followed only nine years after, in 1966--the Second quartet was recorded the following year. But there's a dynamism and freshness in the playing--complemented by sound that's just slightly dry enough to give the strings a nice vibrant edge--that surpasses all subsequent readings on disc.
The Emerson Quartet renditions (DG) are not only often faster, but the interpretations have an overtly academic character in the all-too-conspicuous articulation and phrasing. The Lydian Quartet's (Centaur) fine enough performances are dulled just a bit by the acoustic; the Blair Quartet's (Naxos) readings are very good, the best of the modern recordings of these two unique--and extremely different quartets. But whether you already have or eventually want more than one version, the Juilliard's Ives should not be missed.