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Charles IVES (1874-1954)
String Quartet No.1: From the Salvation Army (1896) [21:46]
Scherzo (ca.1907-14) [1:42]
String Quartet No.2 (1911-13) [26:59]
Blair String Quartet
rec. Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee 5, 6, 8 March 2004.
NAXOS 8.559178 [50:19]

 

Charles Ives is recognised as a father to just about every category of modern American music, but you wouldn’t guess it from his String Quartet No.1. The work’s original subtitle, ‘From the Salvation Army’ sums up the musical source for much of the material in the piece. Composed in Ives’ sophomore year at Yale, the composer used revival and gospel hymns such as Beulah Land and ‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus’, paraphrasing them in order to break up their four-square melodic structures. While it is easy to dismiss this as a youthful folly, analysis shows highly technical treatment of this superficially negligible material, introducing it (among other things) to cyclic form – the using and trans-formatting of similar material throughout the piece to create thematic unity. The fugue which forms the first movement had its origins as an organ fugue composed at Yale, and it crops up yet again in the third movement of the Fourth Symphony – recycling a go-go!

The programme on this CD has a brief intermezzo in the shape of Ives’ Scherzo, which also quotes from hymns such as ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ and Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground.’ Another piece of wild whimsy, there are Ivesean fingerprints such as canonic treatment of themes and the occasional musical joke, and ending in a ‘raucous’ dissonant final chord.

String Quartet No.2 brings us into far more complex realms, many of the quotations being clipped and condensed, rendering them as good as unrecognisable. Theme-spotters can have fun seeking out moments from Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, as well as the occasional folksy tune, but the inner intensity of the work renders the eclectic nature of Ives’ ear secondary to the fascinating sense of flow and exploration which is in constant flux. The final movement, ‘The Call of the Mountains’ opens with searching and atmospheric, atonal chords and passages, and ends with a jaw-dropping section with block-like, almost aleatoric notes over a descending ostinato scale in the cello.

It has been pointed out that Ives’ music lives very much on the edge, constantly running the risk of sounding amateurish and just plain awful unless the commitment of the players is absolute. This is particularly true of the 1st Quartet, and if Ives had not gone on to create the work he did this would be one oddity no doubt long forgotten. One thing I can guarantee you about this recording is that there is no question as to the passion and genuine feel the Blair Quartet put into this music. They are entirely convincing and very well recorded, making this a valuable addition to the catalogue. The only alternative I could find is the Lydian Quartet on the Centaur label, the Emerson Quartet on DG apparently having been dropped from the listings. With the timing at only just over 50 minutes we might have hoped for another wee filler, but in any case we have the inevitable bargain bonus of Naxos pricing, so collectors really need look no further.

Dominy Clements            

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for reviews of other releases in this series, see the American Classics page

 

 


 



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