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The American Album
Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96 (American) (1893) [23:21]
Charles Tomlinson GRIFFES (1884-1920)
Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes (1918-9) [9:57]
Kevin PUTS (1972-)
Lento assai (2009) [12:44]*
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11 (1936/43) [17:17]
Cypress String Quartet
rec. Skywalker Sound, California, June 2011, *September 2012
AVIE AV2304 [64:33]

I have no problem with theme programming when it's done well, with an ear to stylistic and expressive variety, as it is here. All these scores deserve repeated airings but to tag Dvorák's score as "The Call" and the other three as "The Response," as Richard Aldag does in his booklet note, is to impose an arbitrary extra-musical continuity. There's nothing to suggest that Barber, Griffes or Puts wrote with Dvorák's quartet in mind - indeed, the Cypress Quartet specifically commissioned Puts's score as a homage to Beethoven and Mendelssohn.
Many collectors' interest will undoubtedly centre on the unfamiliar works. That includes Samuel Barber's quartet, which occupies a paradoxical niche, as a forward-looking piece best known for a Romantic movement, the famous Adagio. The Cypress players avoid the temptation to make it "about" that movement, even if some listeners won't. The first movement's melodic lines are gracefully contoured, while the more driving passages go with a nice point. The Adagio, restrained and reverent, moves without pause into the brief Molto allegro third movement, which functions as a coda to it.
Charles Tomlinson Griffes is mostly, and unjustly, remembered as a purveyor of pastel Orientalisms in the tone-poems The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan and The White Peacock. Here, dealing with a different ethnic influence, he writes in a more substantial vein, though the high writing at the start is shimmering and diaphanous. Oddly, except for the pentatonic bit with ostinato bass at 3:43 of the Lento e mesto, the music doesn't sound particularly "Indian" - the "Indians" in question being native Americans, not what my generation called "Indians from India".
The Lento assai of Kevin Puts is rather interesting. The first section shares the concentration and deep voicings of Beethoven's Op. 135 quartet, though its continuing stepwise motion hints at a subconscious kinship with Barber's Adagio. A more agitated, even anguished episode follows, relaxing into a third section where the interplay of sustained and moving parts fills out the texture, creating the illusion of more than four instruments.

Dvorák's American quartet is a bona fide classic, and the Cypress Quartet approaches it freshly from the start. The first movement doesn't so much start as "materialize", as if the players were picking both the undulating accompaniment and the broad theme out of the air. I was puzzled, however, by their handling of the second theme. The first time around, they slow it way down, and the first violin's rubato is fitful and self-conscious; the repeat keeps the ritard, but the leader fusses less; in the recapitulation, the theme steps smartly in tempo, which works best of all. With so much recorded competition, however, small tonal shortcomings of the Cypress loom larger. The players are sensitive to the mood changes in the Lento, for example, but I could imagine them executed more suavely; the contrasting passage in the Molto vivace scherzo also sounds a bit grainy. The players inject a few ritards into the finale, but its forthright closing section ends things affirmatively.
The choice and ordering of works here is appealing, making this a good programme for "listening through", even if you'll want a more authoritative version of the American: from the Juilliard (Sony), say, or the Guarnieri (RCA).

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Masterwork Index: Dvorak string quartet 12