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The Kernis Project: Schubert / Jasper String Quartet

Release Date: 05/29/2012 
Label:  Sono Luminus   Catalog #: 92152   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Franz SchubertAaron Jay Kernis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Jasper String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 13 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Sono Luminus is proud to bring you the second CD from The Jasper String Quartet, The Kernis Project: Schubert, pairing the celestial works of Aaron Jay Kernis and Franz Schubert. This enchanting project is the follow-up to their previous release, The Kernis Project: Beethoven (DSL-92142).

Not only do Schubert and Kernis both ruminate in the angelic and spiritual realms for these works, their overall compositional structures are strikingly similar. Both feature monumental opening movements, transcendent slow movements, short and driving scherzos, and devilish finales. Though different in many respects, these two works garner startling parallels despite the 166 years
Read more between them.

R E V I E W S:

The Jasper String Quartet, originally formed at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, has released several albums under a "Kernis Project" rubric, pairing works by Aaron Jay Kernis with established repertory pieces. It would be interesting to learn exactly how the project came about, and to what extent it was undertaken specifically to promote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Kernis. That said, the pairing in this case makes a lot of sense. The four movements of Kernis' String Quartet No. 1 ("Musica Celestis") match those of Schubert's closely enough to think that there must have been conscious or unconscious influence in some cases; hear the two finales, where Kernis' running rhythms in his Quasi una danza finale closely parallel Schubert. Yet the piece is not simply Schubert with a few modern harmonies added, something that would be a pointless exercise. Schubert's quartet is not outwardly "celestial," but the set of variations on the song Death and the Maiden could be heard that way when set against Kernis' somber Adagio, which is not a set of variations but includes aspects of one. On top of this, the Jasper's Schubert String Quartet in D minor, D. 810 ("Death and the Maiden"), a flowing reading with forward motion rather than dramatic gestures, is worth your time whether you like Kernis or not. An intriguing item from the new Sono Luminus label, which has inherited generally high engineering standards from its predecessor, Dorian.

-- James Manheim, All Music Guide

In a smart and perhaps cynical bid for relevancy, the Jasper String Quartet, formed at Oberlin, has begun “The Kernis Project,” pairing repertory (thus far Beethoven [2011] and Schubert) with works by the American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” is a bit sterile for a work so infused with love and death, but the Kernis, his animated and melodic String Quartet No. 1 (“Musica Celestis”) is impassioned and dialed in — and each work benefits from the presence of the other, which is what good programming always aspires to.

-- Ben Finane, Listen Magazine [Fall, 2012]

With as many recordings of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet as there are—well over 100—one can’t help but wonder if the piece shouldn’t be called the “Deathless Maiden,” for even after having died more than 100 deaths it just won’t stay dead.

I need to acknowledge at the outset of this review that when it comes to this particular work by Schubert, the old adage about familiarity breeding contempt is entirely apt; for after hearing countless recordings and live performances of the piece, not to mention numerous stabs at playing it, I’ve come not just to dislike it but to loathe it.

I tell you this so you will understand why the Jasper String Quartet’s performance has not only lessened my loathing, it has persuaded me that the work can be played with great beauty and refinement of tone. It’s a performance, however, that may not necessarily be to everyone’s taste.

In a nutshell, my objection to practically every recording of the piece I’ve heard is that the music comes across wild-eyed, frantic, and overwrought, a condition exacerbated by execution that’s rough, rasping, and rubbed raw.

Then too, for Schubert, the master of modulation, there are some incredibly awkward and downright ugly fulcrums. For example, no ensemble I’ve ever heard, until now, has made sense of the first violin’s clumsy chromatic passage with its quirky quintuplet, the first three notes of which are marked to be played as a triplet (?), at the end of bar 100 in the first movement, and its recurrence in the recapitulation at bar 259. What was Schubert thinking? I don’t know, but it’s just gauche, and you can’t imagine how graceless it is until you’ve tried playing it yourself. Practically every ensemble’s first violinist tries it a different way, but it always comes out sounding farmisht (Yiddish for confused, befuddled, dysfunctional). J Freivogel, first violinist of the Jasper String Quartet, however, finds a way that, for once, makes sense and that doesn’t make it sound like Schubert has gone off the rails, though by 1824, when he composed the quartet, those little syphilitic spirochetes were probably already farmishing his brain.

For once, too, the piece is performed in a way that doesn’t make it sound like the players are tearing the hair out of their bows. This is a “Maiden” sweeter and more demure than the one we usually encounter. There’s plenty of power where there needs to be, but it’s not forced. The Jasper finds a lyrical element in the score that makes for a smoother, more mellifluent reading. This is why the Jasper’s performance may not be to everyone’s taste. If you like your “Maiden” ranting, raving, and hysterical, this probably won’t be your first choice for a recording of the piece. For me, however, it has redeemed a work I had come to revile. In the Jasper’s hands, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet is now, in my opinion, the beautiful music it always was, can, and should be.

This is my second encounter with the Jasper String Quartet. In Fanfare 35:4, I reviewed the ensemble’s pairing of Beethoven’s C-Major String Quartet, op. 59/3, with Jay Kernis’s String Quartet No. 2, “Musica Instrumentalis.” This album, like that one, is also titled The Kernis Project , and includes another Kernis work, the composer’s String Quartet No. 1, titled “Musica celestis.”

Regardless of any personal misgivings I might have over pairing Kernis with Beethoven and now Kernis with Schubert, the Jasper’s players, who studied at Yale, where Kernis teaches, have expressed their sense of connection to their alma mater’s well-known composer and their intention to continue with this project. The problem I see with this undertaking is that based on Kernis’s current worklist the Jasper is going to run out of the composer’s string quartets long before it runs out of quartets by Beethoven and Schubert. In fact, unless the worklist I’m looking at is out of date, the ensemble has already exhausted Kernis’s string-quartet output with this current release.

Kernis composed his First String Quartet in 1990 at a time when he was choosing to reexamine and re-embrace classical forms. Thus the work unfolds in a traditional four-movement layout. The first movement, an expansive, nearly 15-minute piece marked “Flowing,” is essentially in sonata form and rather Impressionistic in style, at least for the first minute or so. Its opening measures remind me a bit of Ravel’s quartet. But modernist techniques soon take over with jumpy, disjointed rhythms, fragmented melodic and dissonant harmonic material, and a very free approach to tonality.

The slow second movement lends its name to the quartet, “musica celestis” being a reference to the medieval imagery of angels singing their praises to God without end. According to Kernis, the music was inspired by “the soaring work of Hildegard of Bingen.” There’s nothing angelic about the agitated central section of the movement, but at least Kernis’s angels don’t go on without end; after 11 minutes, their celestial droning is done.

The Scherzo, like the opening of the first movement, momentarily recalls Ravel, this time in the French composer’s pizzicato Scherzo, but again, the allusion doesn’t last, as Kernis’s writing quickly veers off down that “other” Robert Frost road, careening right into a thicket of rhythmic thistles and prickly dissonances.

If you’re a longtime reader, you no doubt know that this is not my kind of music, but I think I can say with some confidence, based on its performance of the Schubert quartet and the previously reviewed Beethoven quartet, that the Jasper String Quartet performs the Kernis with as much conviction, technical prowess, and musical intelligence as it does everything else.

As with Kernis’s Second String Quartet, which the Jasper programmed on its first Kernis Project disc, this is not the First String Quartet’s first recording. That award goes to the Lark Quartet, which recorded both Kernis quartets for Arabesque back in 1999. That CD is still available and, though I haven’t heard it, I should think that for Kernis fans having both quartets on a single disc is a more desirable programming option.

The problem I see with the Jasper’s Kernis Project —other than the fact that to date there are no more Kernis quartets to program—is that the catalog is overflowing with Schubert “Maidens,” of which readers are already likely to have more than one in their collections; and while I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that someone who enjoys Schubert can’t enjoy Kernis, I would submit that some who might otherwise appreciate the Schubert but have no interest in the Kernis, or vice-versa, may possibly feel they’re getting only half a CD for their money. Programming of this sort may work fine in a live concert where the listener is exposed to it once, but I have my doubts as to its efficacy on a recording.

So, with all of the above caveats and reservations, I recommend this release to you for an exceptional Schubert and for all-around outstanding playing and recording.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 14 in D minor, D 810 "Death and the Maiden" by Franz Schubert
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Jasper String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1824; Vienna, Austria 
Quartet for Strings no 1 "Musica celestis" by Aaron Jay Kernis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Jasper String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1990; USA 

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