Michael G. CUNNINGHAM (b. 1937)
An Arc of Quartets
New England String Quartet
NAVONA RECORDS NV6081 [54:23 + 38:01]
Navona Records have issued several releases featuring the music of the American born composer Michael G. Cunningham. He was born in 1937 in Warren, Michigan. I also noted that MusicWeb have hosted a couple of reviews of his music. He is a prolific composer, with over two hundred compositions to his name. (See this review, and this review.) Heavily involved in academia throughout his life, he has held teaching posts in several American universities, and written books on theory, harmony and composition. As with his other albums, which catch the eye with their arresting titles, this one, "An Arc of Quartets", similarly piqued my interest. Cunningham's seven Quartets span a period of forty-six years from 1959 until 2005. Five ensembles have contributed to this complete cycle, with performances set down between 2008 and 2016.
Cunningham’s earliest venture into the quartet medium was in 1959, when he was a young man of twenty-two. At that stage his music was tonally orientated. The Quartet No. 1 began as two independent creations, which he later fused into one opus. The first, Easter Variations, is pleasantly lyrical. The second, Song and Fantasia, starts off with a doleful lament. A faster contrapuntal section intervenes, before the movement returns to a more subdued soulfulness.
Eight years later came the Quartet No. 2 Three Satires (1967), which seems quite neoclassical in style. The first movement is crisply articulated, with accented rhythms. In contrast, the second is meditative, with a quirky, capricious section elbowing in at intervals. The final section is upbeat and spiky. Cunningham incorporates such effects as clustered insects, jazz and South American rhythms and textures.
By the time we reach the Third Quartet (1975), the music appears much more compositionally advanced. There is a ground plan to this four-movement work, hence the title Partitions. The first is a prototype, with the three subsequent movements deriving from it. In the second, the violin 1 line is in the focus, in the third it is the viola line, and in the fourth the cello line has prominence.
The Quartet No. 4 Interlacings (1985) is my particular favorite. It is certainly less accessible than the previous quartets, atonally etched. It has a texturally dense narrative, with ideas passed from one instrument to another. The composer makes use of instrumental colour, utilizing such effects as harmonics. In the second movement I could visualize scurrying insects. The final movement is dark and somber.
Three years were to elapse before the Quartet No. 5 Aggregates (1988). Here two outer fast movements frame a languid inner one. I did not find it as challenging as its predecessor, with the textures sounding much lighter. Quartet No. 6 has the intriguing title Digital Isorhythm (2001). It is an experimental work. Its title refers to some computer assisted elements in the first movement. The final Quartet, from 2005, is aptly named Back Home. Now the CD title An Arc of Quartets makes sense. A traditional four-movement work, it seems to recall the lyricism of the First Quartet. The arc is complete.
The audio quality of all the recordings is pleasing, detailed and well-balanced. The composer has provided a short explanation of each of the quartets. I am certain that these committed and assured performances will win new friends for these challenging and intriguing scores.
Quartet No. 1, Op. 10/14 (1959) [9:58]
Quartet No. 2 Three Satires, Op. 22 (1967) [15:20]
rec. January 29 & 30 2016 at MixOne, Studios in Boston, MA
Quartet No. 3 Partitions, Op. 69 (1975) [14:40]
The Moravian Quartet
rec. September 16, 2016 at Reduta Hall in Olomouc, Czech Republic
Quartet No. 4 Interlacings, Op. 117 (1985) [14:25]
The Pedroia Quartet
rec. October 27, 2016 at MixOne, Studios in Boston, MA
Quartet No. 5 Aggregates, Op. 137 (1988) [13:26]
The New England String Quartet
rec. December 15, 2011 at Shalin Liu, Performance Center in Rockport, MA
Quartet No. 6 Digital Isorhythm, Op. 215 (2001) [10:21]
The Millennium Quartet
rec. August 2008 and March 2009 at ERMMedia Studios in Portsmouth, VA
Quartet No. 7 Back Home, Op. 241 (2005) [14:13]
The Moravian Quartet
rec. July 22, 2016 at Reduta Hall in Olomouc, Czech Republic