in: Reviews

October 2, 2011

Indebted Music from Chiara Quartet

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On 30 September at 8:00 p.m. the Chiara Quartet presented a recital in Sanders Theatre as part of their tenure as Blodgett Artists-in-Residence at Harvard University. What held the program of the Chiara Quartet together was a theme of “indebted music”: the Ives Quartet no. 1 and Beaudoin Étude d’un prélude X – Second String Quartet are compositions of the second degree, taking inspiration from another musical work. The Brahms Quartet in a, Op. 51, no. 2 has a more limited debt, the last movement borrowing shorter musical motifs. This eclectic program showcased the talents of the Chiara Quartet and created a musical dialogue among these disparate works.

Charles Ives’s Quartet no.1, “From the Salvation Army,” dates to the composer’s time as a student at Yale, studying composition under Horatio Parker and supplementing his stipend by playing organ at Center Church. Ives draws on church hymns for the four movements. The opening “Chorale: Andante con moto” uses the melodies of “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” and “All Hail the Pow’r of Jesus’ Name.” This movement opened with a lush and earnest chorale, the musicians of the Chiara Quartet performing as a single, tight ensemble. The music harkened back to New England of a century ago, a time witnessed by the architecture of Sanders. Written as an assignment for Parker, this chorale is proficient yet stolid. The second movement, “Prelude: Allegro,” begins in similar vein, but towards the end of this movement the irruption of more typically Ivesian dissonances and progressions adds vitality to the movement; the Chiara Quartet enjoyed those moments, beginning subtly and never over-emphasizing them. In the third movement, “Offertory: Adagio cantabile,” based on the hymn tune “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” Ives continues the play between lush, even Romantic, writing for string quartet and more modern interruptions of rhythm and harmony. The fourth and final movement, “Postlude: Allegro marziale,” quotes from the hymn, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus!” This quartet charts the shift from familiar hymns in a revival context to innovations based on those hymn tunes; the music is constrained, the revival tightly controlled, even in the Postlude when each instrument struggles to break free from the bonds of traditional nineteenth-century music composition. The Chiara Quartet performed the tension between constraint and rebellion nicely: the quartet began lushly, yet also restrained in volume, the episodes of Ives’s own innovation more pronounced without being overdone. The Chiara Quartet’s fine performance notwithstanding, String Quartet no.1 as a whole is more interesting as a harbinger of later works composed by Charles Ives.

Beaudoin’s Étude d’un prélude X – Second String Quartet(2009) received its American première in this concert. The composer’s program note stresses the compositional process: the work is based on precise micro-measurements of Martha Argerich’s 1975 recording of Chopin’s Prelude in e, Op. 28, no. 4 (on Deutsche Grammophon 415 836-2). From the one-minute, 51seconds of Argerich’s recording, Beaudoin extrapolates a 38-minute quartet by exploding the time-axis. The first movement, “Flutter echoes,” combines natural and harmonic notes on all four instruments to produce a continuous and growing sound punctuated by a repeated rhythmic cell. From the beginning, the Chiara achieved a wonderfully singing tone and perfectly matched tonal color, so the floating tones passed between instruments were seamless. The second movement, “The Real Thing,” combines a meandering theme in the violins with incisive pizzicati from viola and cello. The third movement, “Kertész Distortion,” combines a ground of rhythmic pulsing (reminiscent of the first movement) with skittering cascades of notes curling in arabesques above the ground. The whole builds in intensity throughout the movement. The fourth movement, “28four”, is marked by a shimmeringly diaphanous soundscape pierced at times by foghorn-like tones, first on viola, later on other instruments singly or in combination. The work builds to a final intensity, the end feeling like a prelude to something yet to come.

Afterwards I recalled the actual title of this quartet, “Étude d’un prélude,” and realized the literal justice in this name. The Chiara Quartet offered an impassioned and impressive reading of this work. As for the composition, the overall impression stays with me more than specific moments or sound bites. The composer wrote notes at length in the program and these govern our experience of the piece. Reading about the compositional conceit of micro-measuring a recording to generate a new work prepared me for a much less interesting, and even aurally pleasing, work than what Beaudoin composed. So I am sorry I did not have the opportunity to hear the work without knowing about the use of Argerich’s recording of Chopin in the creation of this quartet. Setting aside this conceit, the music builds on the minimalist work of Steve Reich and the tinntinnabuli of Arvo Pärt; Beaudoin combines a ground of slowly progressing repeated sounds, changing slightly, with floating upper-register curlicues for punctuation in a fruitful assimilation of minimalist music style and technique.

After intermission, the Chiara Quartet returned for Brahms’ Quartet in a, Op. 51, no. 2. Unlike the first two works on the program, this quartet was not composed based on earlier music, but it does quote from brief musical ideas and build these into a new work. Specifically, Brahms quotes from Joseph Joachim’s motto (“Frei, aber einsam” or “Free, but lonely”), its acronym rendered into music (F-A-E), then joins this idea to the acronym for a playful variant on same (“Frei, aber froh” or “Free, but glad” – F-A-F) which Brahms embraced as his own motto. So the “red thread” of programming “indebted music” continued. As in the Ives, the Chiara Quartet began the work with a rich, full sound and a rock-solid ensemble among the four members. The lush lyricism in the Brahms was sustained by well-articulated rhythmic elements. The combination gave a heightened sense of drama across all four movements, enhanced by a wonderfully expressive dynamic range. The Chiara reading foregrounded elements that this quartet shares with other chamber works by Brahms (the sextets came to mind on multiple occasions) and his passion for Hungarian folk-tunes (the czardas in the fourth movement here rendered as a bravura piece, tossed off at break-neck speed). The Brahms was a rich and satisfying conclusion to a varied and well-played concert.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.
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