Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartet No. 9.
String Quartet No. 2,
SONO LUMINUS 92142 (71:09)
Ludwig van Beethoven and Aaron Jay Kernis on the same disc together would surely seem to make the oddest of couples. So what was this all about? The Jasper String Quartet’s players studied at Yale’s School of Music, where Kernis teaches. Though the ensemble’s members never actually worked with
Kernis, they felt a connection to their alma mater’s well-known composer when Astral Artists introduced them to his “Musica Instrumentalis” Quartet and they were invited to record the work for Sono Luminus.
The title of this album,
The Kernis Project: Beethoven
, and the link between the Beethoven and Kernis’s String Quartet No. 2 are best explained by Kernis himself: “The final movement is based in some fundamental ways on the last movement of Beethoven’s op. 59, No. 3. It’s a propulsive and energetic double fugue, tarantella, rondo, gigue, and eventually a triple fugue, all wrapped in an overarching sonata form.”
With so many new chamber ensembles sprouting like figs on trees, I was sure I’d encountered the Jasper String Quartet on a CD somewhere before, but I was wrong. This is the group’s disc debut, though I must say that judging from their booklet photos, the players do not appear to have graduated with the spring class. They originally came together at Oberlin and took advanced training with the Tokyo String Quartet.
This may be the Jasper String Quartet’s maiden voyage on record, but the ensemble is not the first to record Kernis’s “Musica Instrumentalis” Quartet. That credit belongs to the well-established Lark Quartet, which commissioned the work and recorded it for Arabesque in 1999.
I wouldn’t use the word “beautiful” to describe Kernis’s quartet, but it’s a universe distant from some of the intolerable noise masquerading as music I’ve had the misfortune to experience. The first of the work’s three movements is a mostly buoyant thing— dance-based, according to Kernis—rhythmically bouncy and contentious, but in a friendly sort of way. If there’s any connection to Beethoven in this movement—though Kernis doesn’t claim one—it would be to the first movement of Beethoven’s final quartet, the op. 135 in F Major.
The lengthy second movement, lasting more than 16 minutes, is an elegy of sorts, dedicated to the memory of Bette Snapp, a committed supporter of new music who passed away during the work’s composition. Kernis hears the dirgelike episodes as a “slow Sarabande,” but these are interrupted by periodic outbursts of angry, frenetic passages. Again, no connection to Beethoven is claimed for this movement either, but a moment around the four-and-a-half-minute mark sounds a distant echo of the “Heiliger Dankgesang” movment from Beethoven’s op. 132.
Oddly, to my ear, the last movement, which Kernis does claim bears some relation to the last movement of the companion Beethoven quartet on the disc, strikes me as having less reference to Beethoven than the preceding movements. For a while, I tried to relate the fugal writing to the
, but in the end I couldn’t. This is the one movement of Kernis’s quartet that makes the least sense to me and that I find the most difficult to absorb. As for the Jasper Quartet’s performance, I have to trust that it’s definitive, but not having heard the Lark Quartet’s recording, this is just a surmise based on the Jasper’s performance of the Beethoven quartet.
On that score, I have a sizeable repository of recordings to use for comparisons, and I can honestly say that the Jasper’s performance is one of the best-played and most vibrant readings I’ve heard. The sense of hushed mystery the ensemble creates in the slow introduction is palpable, and first violinist J Freivogel (apparently “J” is his first name) manages to accomplish something many seasoned players don’t. He hits the high C at the end of measure 56 right on the nose and clean as whistle—not a trace of bow scrape or contact—and then plunges to the low open G at the beginning of the next bar as smoothly as if there were no string crossings in between. This is playing of exceptional technical skill and control, and it’s a real pleasure to listen to.
Of course, there’s more to the Jasper than beauty of surface execution. There’s real musical intelligence and depth to this reading. The first movement, with exposition repeat, is joyous; the Andante, an ancient primal wail disguised as a gloomy barcarolle, comes close in the Jasper’s performance to anticipating the rowing oarsmen on the river Styx in Rachmaninoff’s
Isle of the Dead
, at least until bar 21 where we’re rocked in the most melting, comforting embrace; the Trio to the third movement, a riotous, rollicking shout of jubilation, is as primal here as was the previous movement’s cry of pain; and finally, the unbridled zaniness of the last movement arrives and the Jasper pulls out all the stops.
This goes right to the very top of my A-list of Beethoven quartet recordings. It will be a terrible waste of the ensemble’s talents, and our loss, if Sono Luminus does not put the Jasper String Quartet to work immediately on a complete Beethoven cycle. I understand the players’ sense of connection to Kernis and I respect their effort in recording the composer’s “Musica Instrumentalis” Quartet, but personally, I’d rather hear the Jasper in more Beethoven, and soon. Meanwhile, this receives my strongest recommendation.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
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