Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets: Nos. 1–3
BRIDGE 9352 (65:00)
I sampled the recording of Fred Lerdahl’s quartets in an early edit, which Becky Starobin at Bridge Records was kind enough to let me access. By the time you read this, the final CD should have appeared. I therefore won’t comment on matters of balance or sound, but confine myself to dealing with the music and the performance by the Daedalus Quartet (whose personnel are Min-Young Kim and Ara Gregorian, violins; Jessica Thompson, viola; and
Raman Ramakrishnan, cello).
Lerdahl’s First Quartet begins with a series of chords based on open fifths and using open strings. His developmental process kicks in almost immediately as the harmonies expand, grace notes begin to spout like tendrils, and the relatively plain statement sets off a series of complex textures and thematic lines. The work, in one continuous movement, seems to fall into segments; there are points where the argument stops to take a breath, as it were, before continuing in a new direction.
Lerdahl’s harmony is atonal insofar as it is not anchored to a particular key, thereby dispensing with the harmonic implications of a tonic, but the assonance/dissonance axis is nonetheless carefully balanced. Toward the end of the work, a preponderance of the intervals of a major third, major sixth, and fifth produce the same responses in the listener as they would in any piece using classical tonality: The third equals warmth, for example. So, whether or not it was specifically the composer’s intention, this listener at least felt an emotional terrain was being mapped, and that the effect of the work was more than the sum of its techniques. Those techniques also involve an original and integrated use of textural devices like pizzicato, glissando, and harmonics. For Lerdahl these devices perform a structural function as well as providing color. To give an instance: a slower midsection of the work features lyrical lines that are frequently interrupted by pizzicato in the higher instruments, as two distinctive thematic ideas (one drawn out, one vigorous) are simultaneously developed. Twice, a clear reference to the opening statement appears, the final time as the basis of a coda that definitely leaves you with the sense that there is more yet to come.
Much as I enjoyed the First Quartet, the Second struck me as even more impressive. It is texturally imaginative and densely packed with ideas. A yearning, almost romantic lyrical impulse, a falling melodic sequence, an accompanying figure of quick, repeated chords, and a wide-leaping theme of jerky, nervous rhythm all appear within the first minute or so of this quartet, and form the basis for most of what follows. The composer’s skill lies not only in the way he develops his material, but also the way he juxtaposes these contrasting elements. There are several arresting moments throughout the work that I could mention—one employs all four strings playing an up-then-down arpeggio figure (but not doubling)—and the coda is a most effective winding down of the string quartet machine. Toward the end, I am positive I heard a brief quote from Ravel’s Quartet in the viola part.
This may be the time to mention the marvelous response to Lerdahl’s work by the members of the Daedalus Quartet. It is clear that this is not easy music to play or to digest; not only are there tricky rhythmic figures throughout, but the instruments are often required to go from
, sometimes within a single phrase. Lerdahl is very precise (as you would imagine) in his notation of dynamics and phrasing. Following the scores, which Fred very kindly sent me for the purpose of this review, I was overwhelmed by the Daedalus’s accuracy and fidelity to every dynamic shading, and their ability to bring such life to the notes, let alone simply play them! From the point of view of performance, theirs is an extraordinary achievement. Incidentally, Gregorian plays first violin and Min-Young Kim plays second in the First Quartet, then for Quartets 2 and 3 they swap roles.
The third and most recent work (2008, rev. 2010) continues to play with the thematic elements of its predecessor, plus several others such as a falling chromatic phrase that appears in the Second Quartet but becomes more prevalent here. Again, it is bracing to follow the argument as one or two instruments put forward an idea, and then the whole quartet takes it up until one of its members announces something in complete contrast. Mercurial would be one way to describe this process. The Third Quartet differs from the Second and recalls the First in that the forward progress occasionally reaches a point of momentary indecision. After the second of these breaks, the quartet suddenly plunges into a rapid scherzo section of 71 bars, a more extended episode than we have heard hitherto. Toward the end, material from the opening of the First Quartet steals in, and the work closes with a reminiscence of those opening chords, gradually simplifying into a final G from all four instruments.
This release is clearly going to be an important addition to the canon of contemporary American chamber music. If my description (hasty and half-digested though it is) piques your interest, do not hesitate in making this music’s acquaintance. If words like “intensity,” “difficulty,” and “complexity” are inclined to put you off, do not let them, because Lerdahl’s music here (as on the earlier Bridge CDs) simply grabs you and takes you along for the ride. The trip is stimulating and unpredictable.
FANFARE: Phillip Scott
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Strings no 1 by Fred Lerdahl
Daedalus String Quartet
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1978; USA
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