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Music Between the Wars

Leos Janácek: String Quartet No. 2, "Intimate Letters"
Ruth Crawford Seeger: String Quartet
Paul Hindemith: String Quartet No. 4, Op. 22
Pacifica Quartet

Review By Joe Milicia
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CD Label: Cedille CDR 90000 092


  Following their acclaimed set of the complete Mendelssohn Quartets as well as discs of Dvorák and Easley Blackwood for Chicago's Cedille label, the California-born, Illinois-based Pacifica Quartet offers a grouping of works by three very different composers, under the loose heading of "Music Between the Wars." (More precisely, the music dates between 1922 and 1931.)

Janácek's Second Quartet, of 1928, when the composer was in his 70s, is a constantly astonishing work — too complexly structured to be called a passionate outburst, but so wildly and achingly intense that one imagines it dashed off in a single all-nighter. It was conceived as the musical equivalent of a set of letters to a much younger woman the composer had fallen madly in love with. (The subtitle is sometimes translated "Intimate Pages.") The conventional labeling for the four movements — Andante, Adagio, Moderato, Allegro — is altogether misleading, for each movement contains extreme changes in tempo. One could make a parallel to Janácek's three-movement tone poem Taraš Bulba of a decade earlier: the breaks between movements seem like pauses to catch a breath during an ongoing drama, rather than demarcations between quite different structures. To be sure, each movement of the quartet has its own architecture, though a motto theme, heard in a great many guises, ties together the whole work. Emotions range from rapture to tenderness to feelings impossible to characterize in words.

My standard for this music has been a performance of the appropriately named Janácek Quartet, who recorded it for Supraphon in 1963.(My edition is a Crossroads LP, still quite good in sound, though there is a Supraphon CD edition, reportedly an excellent transfer.) The Pacifica  version is very different but well deserving of repeated listenings: their overall sound is warmer, more blended and rich, than the Janácek's, though there is an advantage as well to the older quartet's drama of four individual voices. (I can't say to what extent the recording techniques rather than the players' styles give this impression.) The Janácek Quartet players do have an unbeatable sense of rhythmic pulse, and surely no quartet has been more electrifying when it comes to the searing intensity of the sudden Allegro in the third movement, with the first violinist's high notes cutting through the other players' agitated figures. But the Pacifica's first violin, Simin Ganatra, is compelling too, and all four players show passion (and control) throughout. It is too bad that they could not also have recorded Janácek's almost-as-great 1923 First Quartet, subtitled "The Kreutzer Sonata" — maybe they could put out a companion CD of other between-the-wars quartets, with that as its centerpiece.

Ruth Crawford Seeger has never quite entered the mainstream of American composers, no doubt partly because of her relatively sparse output, her writing mostly for small ensembles, and her experiments in atonalism. (Her children went off in a different musical direction — she was the mother of folkies Mike and Peggie and stepmother of Pete.) Her String Quartet of 1931, which shows up every once in awhile in CD anthologies of modern American quartets, is abstract, oddly fascinating, and brief, lasting less than 12 minutes. The only thing at all conventional about it is its division into a traditional four movements: complex opener, scherzo, slow movement, and fast finale, with the second and fourth only two minutes in length. The first movement, marked Rubato, is thorny and agitated, except for a quiet ending; the second, marked Leggiero (light) and in strict time, is more fleeting and quick-pulsed. The slow movement is perhaps the most unusual: a series of single notes from each player, each fading after another note begins, creating ghostly harmonies. The notes gradually rise in pitch and volume until a brief, startling climax is reached, then quickly subsides. (The opening may remind one of the third of Arnold Schönberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, an experiment in "colors" subtitled "Summer Morning by a Lake.") The finale is odd as well: jagged outbursts from the first violin, answered by mutterings from the other three players, who are muted. The Pacifica plays the work with confidence and character.

Paul Hindemith's 1922 Quartet, Op. 22, is the fourth of his seven string quartets (counting an early work unpublished in his lifetime but not a lost juvenile work). Like the other quartets on the CD, this is an experimental work in its own way, from a composer still in his 20s. The first of the five movements is fugal and very slow, except for an agitated middle section; melancholy at first, a bit statelier in the return section thanks to the steady pizzicato pulse of the cello. A scherzo that follows is hard-driving, almost reminiscent of Bartok, with a gentler midsection. The middle movement, the longest, is daringly simple and subdued, with an even rhythmic pulse and all the players muted throughout. I imagine that it's a challenge for any quartet to sustain interest through the 8-minute length; the Pacifica manages, though I'm not sure this is a movement I want to hear very often. The minute-and-a-half movement that follows is essentially a cello cadenza with vigorous comments from the other players, leading directly into a genial rondo-finale ("Easygoing [gemächlich] and with Grace" is the marking), foreshadowing the Moderatos of many a Hindemith work to come.

I'm not sure what the music on the CD adds up to, other than to demonstrate the extreme variety of modernisms in a single collection, but the disc decidedly demonstrates the virtuosity and sensitivity of the Pacifica Quartet, recorded in very fine sound.




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