Ives: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2 (CD review)

Juilliard String Quartet. Newton Classics 8802197.

Don’t you just love the music of American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954)?  It’s always so quirky, and the older the guy got, the more eccentric his music became. The present album combines two of his more-popular works, the early String Quartet No. 1, which is rather conventional for the man, and the later String Quartet No. 2, which dates from over a dozen years on and shows how unique (and curious) his music had become. The two works make a fascinating study in comparisons and contrasts, and you couldn’t ask for better performances or sound than these 1967 re-released recordings from the world-famous Juilliard String Quartet.

I don’t need to remind you that the Juilliard String Quartet is among the oldest continuing string quartets in the world. Founded in 1946 at the Juilliard School in New York, the group has won numerous awards over the years, including four Grammys, and recorded countless discs. Of course, all of the original musicians are gone now, but at the time of this recording, it still involved several founding members. The main thing is that they play impeccably, and no one has matched their performances of these Ives String Quartets. As constituted here, the group included Robert Mann and Earl Carlyss, violins; Raphael Hillyer, viola; and Claus Adam, cello.

Ives wrote his String Quartet No. 1 (subtitled “From the Salvation Army”) somewhere between 1897-1900, just after he’d finished Yale. However, like many of his compositions, it never saw a public performance in his lifetime. The fellow was definitely ahead of his time in the field of modern music, and because his stuff was even more far-out than most modernists of his day, he didn’t have a lot of followers at the time. The First Quartet didn’t see a public performance until 1957, several years after his death, even though it is one of his more-traditional pieces of music.

Ives grew up loving band music, and one can hear its influence in almost all his music including the First Quartet. Further defined as "A Revival Service," the First Quartet abounds in faintly recognizable melodies, in this case hymns, as was Ives's wont. In all of the composer's work we hear familiar tunes that are just barely out of reach. Ives divides the "Service" into an introductory Chorale, a Prelude, an Offertory, and a Postlude, corresponding to a traditional four-movement quartet arrangement. The first section is a meditation, the second a zippy scherzo with lilting dance numbers, the third a beautiful slow movement, and the forth an Allegro finale.

The Juilliard Quartet play the piece with energy, dexterity, grace, variety; you name it, they do it.  There doesn't appear to be anything they can't handle with virtuosic ease. Given that the First Quartet is fairly straightforward (comparatively, for Ives), that doesn't mean that the Juilliard players perform it in any perfunctory manner. Instead, they invest it with all the spirit they can muster, making the music glisten with vigor. It's possible that no one may equal their rendition of the work.

Then, there's the Second String Quartet, and we're suddenly listening to something more reminiscent of Ives, the composer with the weird, atonal harmonies and sudden dissonances. What a difference a decade makes. The Second Quartet dates from around 1913-15 and shows how far Ives had moved along in his unique musical style. It’s filled with far more disharmony, discords, tonal disparities, argument shifts, complex rhythms, and transcendent conflicts than the First Quartet, and, therefore, makes for more-challenging listening.

Ives said he wrote the Second Quartet as a counterpoint to the "trite" character and style of typical concert quartets. I’m not sure if he was also referring to his own First Quartet. In any case, the Juilliard players manage to make it a lot less harsh than I've sometimes heard it played. What's more, the oddball interjection of familiar songs isn't nearly so jarring as it can sometimes sound. Ives also said he intended the work's three movements to represent four men "who converse, discuss, argue, fight, shake hands, shut up--then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament." Fair enough; people can be pretty strange when they're in the midst of tensions and disagreement. And it's these contrasts that we hear the Juilliard players bring out most clearly in the music. It's not quite program music in the sense of a Mussorgsky or Strauss tone poem, but Ives clearly wanted to convey specific impressions, which the Juilliard performers are happy to exploit and still make it sound like music and not noise. The conflicts may get raucous, but the interpretation remains likable, maybe because the Juilliard players appear to like the music so much. Although the Second Quartet is not something you might want to listen to very often, this is the version to which you'll want to return as the mood strikes you.

Columbia Records (CBS) originally recorded the music at the Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York City in 1966-67, releasing the record in 1967. Newton Classics re-released them on the current disc in 2013. The sound is quite good, very transparent, with each of the four players distinctly placed across the room. Detailing is more than up to the job, and the frequency response appears nicely extended. The sound is big and bold, well spread out but not entirely across the room--just fairly close up for maximum clarity. OK, maybe the stereo spread is a tad too wide for so small an ensemble, yet the disc sounds better than most anything being made today: beautifully realistic, immaculately clean, with remarkable separation and air. There is no harshness here, no brightness, no forwardness; it's all as smoothly and naturally recorded as you could want, putting real players and real music in your living room.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa