Declarations: Music Between the Wars (CD review)

Chamber works by Leos Janacek, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Paul Hindemith. Pacifica Quartet. Cedille CDR 900000 092.

I admit I find it hard to concentrate for any amount of time on much twentieth-century chamber music.
Largely, this is due to my having the attention span of a gnat; partly, it’s because I often find the music repetitious and unengaging. But I must also admit I found the three pieces on this Cedille album fascinating and appealing, particularly in the hands of the Pacifica Quartet, fascinating and appealing enough to keep me seated between the speakers for over an hour.

The three composers involved are roughly contemporaneous, the works coming from the period as the title says “Between the Wars.” Certainly, the First World War changed the entire world in general as well as the world of music. Mainly gone was the lush, lyrical Romanticism of the nineteenth century, replaced by the more daring, more experimental, sometimes atonal, sometimes disharmonic music of the twentieth. The Janacek, Seeger, and Hindemith pieces come from a period less than a decade apart, from 1922 to 1931, and they reflect a new age.

Of the three works, the opening one, Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2 from 1928, is the most traditional. Called “Intimate Letters,” its four movements convey the composer’s feelings toward a loved one in his life, an affair beyond his marriage that he may or may not have consummated but according to his letters was apparently quite intense. The music alternates between strong, dramatic emotion, tranquil contemplation, and not a little melanchoy, some changes of moods occurring within seconds, which the Pacifica Quartet are quick to relay to the listener.

The Seeger piece from 1931 that follows, simply called String Quartet, is more atmospheric and moody, most of it sounding eerily sinister in its minimalist tone. The final work, Paul Hindemith’s String Quartet No. 4 is the earliest of the compositions, premiered in 1922, and it is perhaps the most unconventional of the trio in that it can sound both modern and Romantic by turns; but, ironically, it is also the freer in its composer’s flowing, unscheduled, yet strict musical notations.

The Pacifica Quartet--Brandon Vamos, Simin Ganatra, Masumi Per Rostad, and Sibbi Bernhardsson--play with a welcome finesse and intense enthusiasm. And the Cedille engineers--Judith Sherman and Bill Maylone--capture the sound quite realistically, with a strong sense of presence and without a trace of forwardness. For fans of chamber music or for folks looking toward something a little different, Declarations makes an arresting listen.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa