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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Octet in E-flat major Op 20 (1825) [32:09]
Dan VISCONTI (b. 1982)
Eternal Breath (2011) [10:52]
Osvaldo GOLIJOV (1960)
Last Round (1996) [11:45]
Jupiter and Jasper String Quartets
rec. 17-19 December 2019, The Foellinger Great Hall, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois, USA
MARQUIS MAR613 [54:46]

Stony-hearted indeed the string player who does not love playing the Mendelssohn String Octet. This would be a desert island piece for me as it embodies not only the essence of what string playing is about but also as a collaborative work, the way in which the instruments share and interact seems to me to distil the spirit of music-making in a single work. Collaboration and community are at the heart of this new recording. Dig a little deeper below the surface of these two American String Quartets and you realise there are many pre-existing connections and interactions between the groups. Three Freivogel siblings are split between the quartets, with other members married or close friends dating back to their college days. So even before a note is played there is a deep bond of amity and respect that lies at the core of all good music-making.

The String Octet repertoire is not exactly over-burdened with choice – in fact neither of the accompanying works are string octets/double quartets themselves. Daniel Visconti’s Eternal Breath was originally written for the unique combination of three cellos, three violins, one viola and a shruti box [courtesy of Wikipedia: A shruti box (sruti box or surpeti) is an instrument, originating from the Indian subcontinent, that traditionally works on a system of bellows. It is similar to a harmonium and is used to provide a drone in a practice session or concert of Indian classical music]. Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round was written for string orchestra – simply adding a double bass to the ‘standard’ octet, makes this in effect a small string orchestra. So the Mendelssohn is the only ‘true’ octet on the disc although given its ubiquity and popularity, I doubt it would be the main attraction for most collectors. Of course the catalogue is full of famous versions by famous groups and players. This new version is good, well played with the quite close recording affording plenty of detail and allowing Mendelssohn’s brilliant musical jousting between the instruments to register effectively. Tempi are generally pretty standard although the closing Presto bustles along vigorously slightly faster than what might be deemed the norm. If I am left craving that extra sprinkle of musical magic it is because I feel this performance lacks the last ounce of playfulness and flamboyance. A fairly recent performance from James Ehnes leading a members of the Seattle Chamber Music Society points up the quality I miss here. Ehnes, and indeed the whole Seattle group, play with a rapier-like light brilliance. Listen to how the Seattle players urge the syncopating accompanying chords forward at the work’s opening. By timings alone there is very little between Ehnes’ Seattle group and the current disc but to my ear Ehnes captures the sheer joy and sense of affirmation this work has. The Jasper/Jupiters are more muscular and serious. This is still finely played and well conceived as a performance I simply prefer the approach of Ehnes.

Returning to the theme of collaboration and community, Dan Visconti’s Eternal breath was commissioned by the parents of the Freivogel siblings to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary and it receives its World Premiere recording here. The concept was for a work that could involve all four of their children and their spouses. The ‘issue’ of one spouse not being a professional musician was circumvented by the part for the afore-mentioned shruti box. All credit to Visconti, because interestingly this instrument adds a very effective musical anchor cum framework to the piece and is more central to its success than one guess a potentially contrived part for a non-musician might be. The title “Eternal breath” embodies the idea of the breath of life being passed from one family generation to another and expanding as it goes through the broadening family tree. Musically Visconti treats this by starting with a simple “breathing phrase” which lengthens and elaborates as this melody in turn passes around the ensemble. This is an evocative and serenely beautiful piece, with Visconti creating hypnotic textures that slip and overlap each other in a rather haunting way. The Shruti box drone sits discretely in the background colouring textures and providing an intriguing blurring of the expected aural soundscape. Visconti’s extensive use of marked glissandi within the writing adds to the ecstatic visionary quality of the work which seems to be influenced by Indian musical gestures. The underlying pulse is slow, but over its near eleven minute span the textures become more complex and frenetic as the pitches of the individual parts rise before fading into the musical heights leaving the simple drone. This is an unusual and effective work given an impressive and compelling performance.

Much the same can be said about Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round. This work is Golijov’s explicit homage to another Argentinian composer/performer Astor Piazzolla. Piazzolla [the liner here mis-spells his name with a single ‘l’] was central to the creation of “New Tango” both as a composer but also as a performer on the bandoneón with his various new tango ensembles and bands. Golijov’s intention was to create a string ensemble version of an idealised bandoneón. If you know and appreciate Piazzolla’s style and music, this work’s evocation of his music is instantly recognisable and enjoyable. Interestingly because Golijov seeks to represent the bandoneón, he avoids two of Piazzolla’s most characteristic string effects – namely the whip glissando and the playing behind the bridge [which produces a near-percussive croaking sound]. The burly muscularity in the playing that worked slightly against the Mendelssohn suits this music perfectly.

The opening Last Round; movido urgent is a typically urgent and unsettled swirling dance that alternates between dynamic action and passages of a more sensuous and stately character. The addition of a double bass allows Golijov to mimic Piazzolla’s stalking bass lines with slap pizzicato. The liner note neatly sums up the music thus; “the two quartets square off against each other, lunging and feinting with dangerous quickness. The sophisticated essence of the tango is here, but its energy has a physical ferocity”. Part of that “essence” which embodies the way to play this music too is that to the watcher/listener it should have a passionate abandon teetering on the edge of collapse. But in fact the technique of the dancer/player is such that this imminent implosion is nothing of the kind with skilled control ensuring the performers remain on the technical tightrope. The Jasper/Jupiters are good at creating this musical sleight of hand as they are in the work’s 2nd movement – Muertes del Angel – at exploring a more sinuous and indeed sensuous facet of new tango. Notes on the LA Philharmonic’s website sum this movement up neatly as “a tango elegy both impassioned and reflective, as rich in affect as it is in effects. Golijov's string writing captures the quintessential sound of Piazzolla and tango, the moaning wheeze of the bandoneón, at once seductive and sarcastic.” Balanced against the strutting aggression of the opening movement this makes a powerful and effective contrast again well captured in this performance. There is at least one other performance – again in this nonet version – on Warner/EMI from the St. Lawrence and Ying string quartets which I have not heard. This was my first encounter with Last Round and to my ear it receives an impressive and compelling performance.

Running to just fifty four minutes this is not an overly generously filled disc but it is an enjoyable one. Admirers of these two quartets need not hesitate. If the Mendelssohn is the primary interest then the competition is fierce and other versions I know edge this one out. The Visconti is a world premiere recording and the Golijov one of very few. The uniqueness of the entire programme in dedicated and skilled performances with a tangible sense of friendship and collaboration is what stands out.

Nick Barnard

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