Notes and Editorial Reviews
The 4 Seasons.
String Quartet In 4 Parts
Rodolfo Richter (vn); B’Rock
ET’CETERA 1429 (2 CDs: 114:23)
As absurd as the pairing of Antonio Vivaldi and John Cage may seem, there is a conceptual similarity that connects these particular scores over the centuries—the fact that both composers were, to greater or lesser degree, motivated by the cycle of the seasons. Of course, in Vivaldi’s case the music is often meant to illustrate the
images and moods he described in the four “seasonal” poems that accompany his score. For Cage, the representation of the seasons was more symbolic, based upon the Indian archetypes of creation, preservation, destruction, and quiescence, respectively, although he went to great pains to construct his score in a manner that was not only intended to reject the use of functional harmonic practice, but also distinguish his compositional choices from anything resembling self-expression. Despite their obvious differences, Frank Agsteribbe, harpsichordist, conductor, and one of the founders of the B’Rock Baroque Orchestra, concocted this program, whereby Vivaldi’s famous four concertos are separated by one of the four movements from Cage’s String Quartet (1950), the latter inflated to suit the size of the ensemble—the premise being that
music is now experienced from a contemporary perspective, and hearing these works juxtaposed would alter our perception of each.
And it works, up to a point. B’Rock takes no undue liberties with
The Four Seasons
; theirs is a measured, well-considered interpretation, incorporating most of the commonly held early-music performance practices without going to extremes of tempo or phrasing. While never disrupting the musical flow as far as Nikolaus Harnoncourt did with Concentus Musicus Wien (Teldec)—one of my personal, perverse favorites—they nonetheless emphasize the music’s contrasting episodes in a way that illuminates the imagery, and provides violinist Rodolfo Richter with plenty of opportunities for flamboyance as well as poetry. By bringing the same approach to Cage’s primarily austere score, they suggest unsuspected moments of playfulness and interpretive imagery, such as the jiglike rhythm of the fourth movement and the possibility of unintended birdcalls and wind sounds in the third movement, and offer some patterns of melodic contour and tension similar to those of Vivaldi. Following this point of view, Cage’s music may be heard as an abstraction (through fragmentation and reduction) of the style of the older music, and their relationship something akin to, say, an art exhibition that contrasts work by Caravaggio and DeKooning. It may also affect our take on Vivaldi—for example, the picturesque affinity between the ending of the String Quartet’s third movement and the crisp, brisk opening of the “Winter” concerto.
But all is not sweetness and light. Although the enlargement of Cage’s music from string quartet to small chamber ensemble is handled with great subtlety, it does affect crucial characteristics of the music—the density, weight, and transparency of the sounds, which are so delicately embroidered (“without vibrato and with only minimum weight on the bow”) in the original. Further, separating the movements of the String Quartet and placing them in the context of Vivaldi’s music does direct the listener’s focus to their “expressive” potential, contrary to the composer’s intention. The irony is that no matter how inexpressive Cage sought to make his music, we find ways of hearing it as meaningful and beautiful.
For those purists (traditional and contemporary) who may object to their intermingling, Et’Cetera has added a second disc—at no extra charge—with the same performances separate and complete. Slight reservations aside, it’s a program that raises some provocative questions, and worth the experience.
FANFARE: Art Lange
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Strings in 4 Parts by John Cage
Rodolfo Richter (Violin)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1950; USA
Date of Recording: 02/2011
Venue: Monastery of Saint Vincentius, Aalst, Be
Length: 3 Minutes 58 Secs.
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