CD+DVD Reviews

MENDELSSOHN; BEETHOVEN; VERDI; HAYDN; BRAHMS: Quartets & Quintets; Bonus DVD: Rehearsal and Concert – The American String Project – MSR (2 CDs + Bonus DVD)

If you don’t have an insurmountable bias against arrangements, this program should prove a revelation.

Published on September 3, 2011

MENDELSSOHN; BEETHOVEN; VERDI; HAYDN; BRAHMS: Quartets & Quintets;  Bonus DVD: Rehearsal and Concert – The American String Project – MSR (2 CDs + Bonus DVD)

MENDELSSOHN: String Quartet No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 44 No. 2; BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 8 in E Minor, Op 59 No. 2, “Rasumovsky”; VERDI: String Quartet in E Minor; HAYDN: String Quartet No. 66 in G Major, Op. 64 No. 4; BRAHMS: String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111;  Bonus DVD: A Documentary in Rehearsal and in Concert, 5/2009 (2 CDs + Bonus DVD), CD 1: 68:40, CD 2: 72:32, DVD: 25:25 – The American String Project – MSR Classics MS 1386 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

I guess it could be argued that this is a project in search of a raison d’etre. After all, there are some music aficionados, especially string quartet aficionados, who think that arrangements of string quartets are superfluous at best, spurious at worst. Those die-hards may not be willing to change their minds even after hearing the stylish arrangements and very polished performances on these MSR discs. But for listeners without an anti-arrangement bias, this program should prove a revelation, a refreshing take on classics of the repertoire.

As the always astute Bernard Jacobson writes in his notes to the recording, there are gains and losses with any “transaction” such as this; the losses include the loss of intimacy—which is, by the way, especially telling in the Haydn arrangement, but more about that later—and increased technical challenges. “The composers involved would have been unlikely to inflict on a three- or four-violin group figurations that they happily proposed for just one instrument.” As Jacobson further observes, this problem is rendered insignificant by the fact that with the American String Project, we have a group of musicians whose soloistic credentials make (seemingly) easy work of the technical challenges thrown their way.

Jacobson goes on to explain something that a listener will instinctively note immediately: in the American String Project arrangement, the Brahms Quintet takes on an added firmness and purity of line because in the original, the cello is frankly overpowered by the viola-enriched ensemble. In Brahms’s setting, the additional power that the extra viola gives to the middle of the register robs some power from the lower end, thus the cello’s difficult assignment in the original. In Barry Lieberman’s arrangement, the two cellos of the American String Project are backed up by the double bass, played by Lieberman himself. The result: the bass line is easily heard in all its rich vibrancy no matter how busy the upper and middle voices are.

The gains are subtler in the other works, and some arrangements are more successful than others. Verdi’s Quartet, a one-off for the opera composer, is a remarkable work, but it is not damaged at all by additional strings, and the scherzo and finale may especially benefit. The scherzo’s relationship to a comic-opera scena is made even more explicit in the beefed-up version, and the occasional thinness of texture in Verdi’s fugal finale is obviated here. As for Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 4, it’s Mendelssohn in typical minor-key mode; unlike Mozart, the Romantic composer did not invest the minor keys with his deepest emotional and dramatic statements—at least not until toward the end of his life, in works such as the powerful Quartet No. 6 in F Minor. Lieberman’s arrangement of the Fourth Quartet thus gives a certain breadth to Mendelssohn’s conception if not an added depth. In any event, the work is pretty compelling in the American String Project version.

Interestingly and revealingly, on the accompanying DVD, the ensemble does essay the late great Mendelssohn F Minor, and at least on the evidence of the brief excerpt from the first movement, the raw drama has been effectively drained from the first movement with the cushioning effect provided by the added strings. In the equally brief excerpt heard here, the second movement’s painful song seems to work much better as Lieberman assigns some of the material to solo strings. In fact, the DVD not only explains the American String Project’s raison d’etre but shows its workings—how Lieberman uses test runs of the pieces to make executive decisions about the assigning of parts. The DVD also includes intriguing excerpts from other works, Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 2 and Schumann’s Quartet No. 4, both of which appear to have something to say in Lieberman’s arrangements. The Prokofiev especially demonstrates the concertante approach that makes the Mendelssohn second movement an interesting and successful experience in Lieberman’s arrangement.

But back now to the two CDs. Of the remaining works on the program, I’d really rather hear the Beethoven E Minor Quartet in its original, but at least Lieberman’s version doesn’t give us a watered-down, etiolated version of the original as, for example, string-orchestra versions of the Grosse Fuge do. (Note to record producers: There are probably enough renditions of this piece in the catalog for all times.) I’d have to say that least successful of all is the Haydn arrangement. By the time he reached his Op. 66 Quartets, Haydn had perfected the formula that would define the string quartet: an intimate conversation among equals. Lieberman’s arrangement gives us a little too much happy noise and in unhinging Haydn’s formula, seems to take us back to the early roots of the string quartet. The American String Project’s Haydn sounds emotionally lightweight, divertimento-like, and the composer is not well served by it.

But for the other arrangements and for the beautifully secure—and just plain beautiful— playing of the ensemble, this package is certainly worth hearing. Add to that the illuminating DVD, and you have an altogether worthwhile experience, one that I’d recommend even to folks who think they don’t like string quartets in arrangement.

—Lee Passarella




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