Saturday 23 November 2013

Four American works for string quartet receive extremely fine playing from the Cypress String Quartet on a new release from Avie Records

The San Francisco based Cypress String Quartet has been praised by Gramophone for its ‘artistry of uncommon insight and cohesion.’  Formed in 1996 its members are Cecily Ward and Tom Stone (violins), Ethan Filner (viola) and Jennifer Kloetzel (cello).

During the last two years, the Cypress String Quartet has added three new recordings to its ten-album discography, the complete three-CD set of Beethoven’s Late Quartets, which was named Best Classical CD of 2012 by the Dallas Morning News, an all-Dvořák disc from Avie Records featuring Cypresses, (the work from which the ensemble draws its name) and the String Quartet in G, Op. 106.

Most recently a new disc issued by Avie Records entitled The American Album features works for string quartet by Dvořák, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Kevin Puts and Samuel Barber.

The Quartet created a signature sound built up from the bottom register of the quartet and layered like a pyramid, with a resulting sound that is clear and transparent, allowing the texture of the music to be heard immediately. The Cypress String Quartet’s instruments include violins by Antonio Stradivari (1681) and Carlos Bergonzi (1733), a viola by Vittorio Bellarosa (1947), and a cello by Hieronymus Amati II (1701).

Antonin Dvořák’s (1841-1904) String Quartet No.12 in F, Op.96 ‘American’ was written during the composer’s stay in America, when in 1893, he joined the large Czech community living in Spillville, Iowa. Whilst staying there he was able to experience Native American music when a party of Native American Indians came to the town. There has been endless debate as to whether or not such native themes were incorporated into Dvořák’s music. What is certain is that he was influenced by his surroundings and noted down the song of a bird that he heard, a scarlet tanager, which he introduced into his F major quartet.

In this recording there is a lovely, bright opening to the Allegro man non troppo, with taut playing, following every nuance of the music. This Quartet has transparent and brilliant timbre that brings out an earthiness to the music, full of folksy charm in the quieter theme that alternates. Their ensemble is spot on. The Lento brings a fine rhythmic momentum with this quartet providing a lovely ebb and flow. This same strong rhythmic quality applies to this their playing of the Molto vivace where they bring out the changing dynamics to great effect, as well as some lovely quiet harmonies. There is a joyful Vivace ma no troppo finale with a lovely second subject, played with real feeling and emotional intensity before the music fairly gallops to its end.

This is a fine performance of this much recorded quartet, one that reveals so many facets of the music.

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) is best known for works such as The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan, written in 1917. Such was his reputation then that it was Pierre Monteux and the Boston Symphony Orchestra that first performed that work. Perhaps his long term reputation may have been enhanced had he not died at the early age of 35 years. The Lento e mesto of Griffes’ Two Sketches based on Indian Themes opens on a pizzicato note that leads to the melancholy melody, apparently of native American origin. The Cypress String Quartet slowly builds the music as it shifts amongst the instruments. There is some extremely fine playing from the quartet, which brings out all the pathos of this Farewell Song of Chippewa Indians. There is some beautifully sensitive playing here and, as the music develops, it shifts some distance from the simplicity of the opening theme but is, nevertheless, a beautifully realised piece.

The second of these sketches, Allegro giocoso, opens with the chant like repetition of a dance motif. Oddly, part way through, the music becomes reminiscent of Dvorak’s great quartet, whether a coincidence, a similar native influence or a direct Dvořákian influence is impossible to tell. There is more fine playing from this quartet as the music works its way to its furious coda.

Pulitzer Prize winning composer, Kevin Puts (b.1972) has an impressive list of compositions including many orchestral works, compositions for wind ensemble, numerous chamber works and solo instrumental pieces. (See also:

Puts’ Lento Assai was commissioned for the Cypress String Quartet and first performed by them at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C. in 2009. The composer was asked to respond to Mendelssohn’s A minor quartet, Op.13 and Beethoven’s quartet in F major, Op, 135. This fine work, lasting just under 13 minutes has a quiet, gentle opening across the strings with gently shifting harmonies beautifully realised by the Cypress Quartet. Soon one recognises a familiar tune, that of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Op.135 quartet. The material is developed, growing slowly more animated and passionate, before eventually falling back to reveal the Op.135 theme in a gloriously rich version of it. The Cypress String Quartet provides some inspired playing. The work eventually descends into the tranquillity of the opening. This is an especially beautiful work, exquisitely played by this quartet.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) had early success with such works as Dover Beach for voice and string quartet, Op. 3 (1931), The School for Scandal Overture, Op. 5 (1931) and his First Symphony in One Movement, Op. 9 (1936), but it is the slow movement of his String Quartet in B minor, Op.11 that he is most remembered by.

There is a lively, crisp opening to the first movement, Molto allegro e appassionato, with the Cypress String Quartet providing some terrific ensemble and some full and rich playing in the second subject melody, a melody that links surprisingly well with the other works on this disc. With the Molto adagio Barber’s famous theme is revealed, one that has been subjected to a number of versions by the composer and which has become something of an anthem for solemn American occasions. Played with an agreeable directness, this Quartet allows the music to speak for itself with no hyping up of emotion, just an eloquent outpouring of melodic invention. Barber’s original string quartet textures also bring a clarity to the harmonies that is very appealing. The Cypress String Quartet reveals many little subtle details in this finely recorded performance. The Molto allegro (come prima) – Presto gives full reign to this Cypress Quartet’s fine ensemble and crisp delivery. The glorious little central section is richly played before they arrive at a decisive coda.

These four pieces sit especially well together and represent at least one way the line of development the ‘American’ quartet has taken.

The recording is excellent, revealing every detail and there are informative booklet notes.

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