Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: Nos. 3, 7, 8
ALBANY 1245 (60:12)
My first exposure to the music of James Willey came about a quarter century ago in a Spectrum LP that contained his first two string quartets. Those two recordings, coupled with the Sixth Quartet, were apparently reissued on CRI in 1999. Impressed by those works and the outstanding playing of the Esterhazy Quartet, I longed to hear more of his music. Well, all things come to him who waits: I now have had the pleasure of hearing more of
Willey’s finely crafted music and the expressively artistic playing of the Esterhazy Quartet, which has accomplished the recording of all eight of Willey’s quartets to date. On the basis of the five quartets of his that I’ve heard to this point, I can unequivocally state that Willey has firmly placed himself in the top echelon of American composers writing in this medium. His quartet output ranks him in importance alongside Vagn Holmboe, Robert Simpson, and Elizabeth Maconchy (to name several of my favorites), whose quartet cycles place them among the most important composers of quartets after Bartók. One of the most striking features of Willey’s quartet writing is the rhythmic vitality that he brings to the medium. Complex rhythms, using much syncopation, constantly intrude into the texture. Every so often, Willey interrupts all of the activity in favor of a single simple line, often given to the cello in its lower register.
Willey is a product of the Eastman School of Music, having studied with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers. I hear very little of Hanson’s fingerprints in Willey’s music, other than the former’s unerring sense of line. Former
reviewer Robert Kirzinger (
23:2) found that Willey’s style resides somewhere between the orbits of Sessions and Barber. I agree with that assessment: The music is not as romantically conceived as that of Barber, but despite divagations into atonality, seems more firmly centered in tonal regions than does most of Sessions’ music.
The three works contained herein were written over a span of almost 30 years. The third quartet, from 1981, is written in a single movement divided into six parts. Its material is spun out from the opening introduction, and developed in the succeeding four sections. At the conclusion, the opening section is recapitulated, albeit stripped down to its barest essentials. The composer writes that in this work he found himself thinking a good bit about the ways in which the past seems to haunt the present. Consequently, one hears frequent allusions to 18th-century New England hymnody and bits and pieces of American popular music, albeit never to the extent of recognizable quotations.
Like the Third Quartet, Willey’s String Quartet No. 7 was composed for the Tremont Quartet, coming 18 years later. This work is generated from an arch-like 17-pitch melody heard in the cello in the opening. It’s four-pitch sequence of C, E?, D, and F suggests a minor scale, but any such suggestion is quickly dissipated by subsequent lines that traverse intervals of alternating minor thirds and sixths. Its second movement is cast in ABA form, the A sections of which feature sorrowful songs interrupted by an agitated and fragmented middle section. The quartet closes with a dance movement, constructed from unequal beats.
String Quartet No. 8 is based on two hymns, “Poland” and “China,” by New England composer Timothy Swan (1758–1842), whose idiom Willey has taken as his point of departure for several works beyond the present quartet, which was originally composed in 1999, and revised in 2009. Much of its material springs out of a six-note complex presented two notes at a time by the violin. The work is, according to the liner notes, “full of canons and palindromes,” but even after three hearings, my ears did not catch most of these. The impact of the quartet is nevertheless stunning, constantly shifting in mood and texture. Both movements end with near-verbatim iterations of the hymns from which they are named.
The coruscating playing of the Esterhazy Quartet can scarcely be over-praised. Any composer would be gratified to have his work presented in such stellar fashion, including the fine sonics given us by Albany. In sum, I have not the slightest hesitation in recommending this release enthusiastically to anyone interested in the fine art of quartet writing.
FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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