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American Music: Reich, Barber, Crumb / Quatuor Diotima

Reich / Barber / Crumb / Quatuor Diotima
Release Date: 10/25/2011 
Label:  Naive   Catalog #: 5272   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Steve ReichSamuel BarberGeorge Crumb
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Quatuor Diotima
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

REICH Different Trains. BARBER String Quartet. CRUMB Black Angels Diotima Qrt NAÏVE V 5272 (60:07)

Here is a bold, imaginative program of American music for string quartet, superbly played by a young French ensemble. It is provocative enough that the three pieces have very little in common in a stylistic sense, but it is the lasting emotive power of each of them that binds Read more them together, rather than nationality.

The most recent composition is Steve Reich’s 1988 Different Trains for string quartet and tape. Despite the unusual construction of the piece, which incorporates recordings of manipulated human voice, the work has gained a foothold in the repertoire, with five different performances in the recorded catalog (as well as, it seems, a couple of deletions), including one of the orchestrated version. I happen to think that Different Trains is a masterpiece. I have heard the dedicatees, the Kronos String Quartet, play it live twice, and also heard a brilliant and deeply moving performance of the orchestral version, with David Robertson conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. But I also know people whose knowledge and taste in music I respect who say that they hate Different Trains , claiming that it is essentially nonmusical.

I suspect that those who dislike the music are reacting to the necessarily mechanized nature of the composition. It is true that there is little room for the sort of individualized expressivity that a quartet might bring to Beethoven. All performances of Different Trains must use the same recorded voices, which locks in the exacting tempos of the music. In fact, all of the recordings of the piece come within seconds of each other, and the differences between them count more on recording balances than interpretive choices.

It is helpful to think of Different Trains as much a theater piece as a work of music. The three movements contrast train trips in the 1940s on two continents; that of the young composer being shuttled back and forth across America between his divorced parents, and that of Jewish children in Europe being dispatched to their deaths in German concentration camps. Reich taped his own governess, train employees, and holocaust survivors, as well as train whistles (which have distinctly different timbres and pitches in Europe and America), and incorporates them into the score.

For me, the use of taped voice is utterly musical. Reich is hardly the first composer to recognize the musical value of the spoken voice. Mussorgsky made it a basis of his technique, as did Janá?ek. Reich must have culled the material for the final version from a great wealth of spoken material, and his choices ring with spot-on appreciation for both dramatic and musical impact. The train employees in particular render their words with a natural, sing-song energy. But I am especially haunted by the words of one of the survivors, Rachella, who in part 3, responding to the announcement of the end of the war, asks, “Are you sure?” Who of us can understand, much less relate to, the sense of emerging from a very real nightmare! It is a devastating moment in the piece, as the simple words, music, and taped effects combine to a singular effect.

George Crumb’s Black Angels is another seminal American string quartet with significant historical overtones. The composer concedes that the work will always be known as his Vietnam quartet, although he says he did not create it with the war in mind (I interviewed him about the piece in 2004). He completed it on a Friday the 13th in 1970, and the dark aura of the time pervades the music, which alternates between moments of terror and resigned sorrow, all emboldened by electronic amplification and stunning percussion effects. Like Different Trains, Black Angels has received a number of fine recorded performances, and this new one holds its own among them.

The best-known music on this collection is Barber’s String Quartet, including the ubiquitous Adagio. The Diotima Quartet delivers an excellent reading, full-voiced and honestly passionate, but devoid of histrionics. It makes for a fascinating contrast with the other two American works on this remarkably compelling release.

FANFARE: Peter Burwasser
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Works on This Recording

Different Trains by Steve Reich
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Quatuor Diotima
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1988; USA 
Notes: Version for string quartet and tape. 
Quartet for Strings in B minor, Op. 11 by Samuel Barber
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Quatuor Diotima
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1936; Rome, Italy 
Black Angels by George Crumb
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Quatuor Diotima
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1970; USA 
Notes: For electronically amplified strings. Subtitled: Images I. 

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