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Alberto GINASTERA (1916-1983)
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 20 [20:47]
Antonín DVO Ř ÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96 American [26:45]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 [21:22]
Simón Bolívar String Quartet
rec. February 2012, Sala Simón Bolívar, Centro de Acción Social por la Música, Caracas
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 0429 [68:54] 

The Simón Bolívar String Quartet comprises section leaders from the similarly-named Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. All male by whatever coincidence, they here present a program of music from the new and old worlds. It’s a little rough, but overall pretty good.
Alberto Ginastera’s first quartet is a taut, tense work in three very short fast movements and one mournful eight-minute aria. The opening is frantic and raw, the scherzo is grimly playful and brings us the ensemble’s best playing. The finale has a wonderful pizzicato episode conjuring up all sorts of fascinating sound effects. 

The two more familiar pieces are Dvořák’s American quartet and Shostakovich’s celebrated Eighth. The American is well-done, with a few moments of originality - I love the opening bars. Throughout, there’s that extra dash of fire and energy we associate with younger performers. Still, there are rough patches: the opening bars I singled out for praise fall just shy of the standard for quicksilver beauty recently set by the Pavel Haas Quartet. Throughout the CD, Alejandro Carreño’s first violin can sometimes sound harsh, either because of performer or recorded sound - his grandfather is the notable composer Inocente. There’s a habit of speeding through the faster, louder bits and slowing down big-time for the prettiest melodies, a habit you’ll either like or hate.
Shostakovich’s edgy, exciting Eighth Quartet is another good match for these performers, and they take a few more interpretive liberties while overall keeping up their sharp attacks and youthful fire. Again, I am not totally certain that they have all the technical skills or tonal refinement to sustain their speeds; the second movement is perilously albeit thrillingly close to the edge. Among recent recordings, one by the Pacifica Quartet outclasses this in almost every way, the group’s technical perfection making their interpretation all the more harrowing.

The booklet notes do a good job of evoking the performers’ love of the music, and I was amused to note that each singled out as their favourite the work that gives them the biggest solo. The cellist is conscious of this, pointing out that he would love the Ginastera even without the cello melody in the slow movement.
All in all, this is a promising start to a string quartet’s career. I look forward to hearing more from them. That said, among rising quartets from North and South America, the Simón Bolívar players don’t necessarily merit greater attention than the Pacifica, Jasper, Parker, Cypress or Cecilia String Quartets.
Brian Reinhart

Masterwork Index: Dvorak American quartet ~~ Shostakovich quartets