Classical CD Reviews

GEORGE PERLE: String Quartets 2, 5 and 8; Molto Adagio – Daedalus Quartet – Bridge

Excellent performances of the string quartets of George Perle – an important American composer whose “12-tone-tonality” is sophisticated, elegant and beautiful.

Published on September 16, 2013

GEORGE PERLE: String Quartets 2, 5 and 8; Molto Adagio – Daedalus Quartet – Bridge 9398, 68:18 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Despite the fact that George Perle (1915-2009) was known for his expertise on 12-tone music, (authoring several books on the subject) his mature compositions sound tonal. He called this new style of music “12 tone-tonality.” Perle was searching for a middle ground between the dying post-romantic tradition of the early twentieth century (Mahler) frigid neoclassicism (Stravinsky), and Schoenberg’s serialism. By creating an equality between the twelve notes of the chromatic scale—just as the seven note major and minor scales of the tonal system had—and rejecting the prearranged and scrupulously sequenced notes (tone rows) of serialism, he was free to compose music that sounded tonal.  Add rhythmic and dynamic freedom and you have music that is richly expressive and sophisticated. For Perle, the revelation came from hearing Berg’s 1926 “Lyric Suite” in 1937, and it’s no accident that he became a noted Berg scholar, writing a two volume book on the operas of Berg. In fact, Perle’s research on Berg’s opera Lulu led to the completion of the third act and its first entire performance in 1979. The quartets on this disc trace his progression to “12-tone-tonality.”

When Perle heard a relative play Chopin and Liszt on a piano at an early age, “It literally paralyzed me,” he recalled. “I was extraordinarily moved and acutely embarrassed at the same time, because there were people in the room, and I could tell that nobody else was having the same sort of reaction.” His parents had emigrated from Russia prior to World War I and raised Perle on the farms of Wisconsin and Indiana. His musical education led him to composition (he studied privately with Ernst Krenek from 1939-41), and a masters degree in music in 1942 before serving as a chaplain’s assistant in World War II. He taught music and composition at many universities, became an important author and theorist, and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowships in 1966 and 1974. He secured a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1986, the same year that his Wind Quintet No. 4 won a Pulitzer Prize.

The earliest work on this disc—the 1938 twelve-minute Molto Adagio—is a deliciously tart “attempt to find some kind of a way to write atonal music,” as Perle describes it. Woven from a tapestry inspired by Berg’s Lyric Suite and Bartok’s Second Quartet, it’s redolent of late romanticism’s tranquil and sweet angst and atonality’s elusive ‘off kilter’ chromaticism that reveals its twentieth century modernism. The emotional core of the Quartet No. 2 (1942) is the final movement, a mournful dirge that surely was motivated by the death of many of the composer’s Eastern European Jewish brethren in World War II. Earlier movements include a waltz “filtered through Berg and Mahler” (as program annotator Malcolm MacDonald describes it) and a first movement that treats motivic and rhythmic change in a flowing yet elegantly beautiful manner.

By 1960, in his Quartet No. 5, Perle had developed his atonal tonality to a level that achieved both musical and emotional satisfaction. Richly expressive, rhythmically sophisticated and filled with melodic short phrases, it’s a work that flows easily. Yet, beneath this seemingly calm tonal garb, is a rhythmic complexity—especially in the vivacious scherzo—that satisfies the mind as well as the emotions. The last movement explodes with a burst of creativity that is emotionally and musically capricious—at once humorous, startling, dramatic, and clearly the work of a master.

In Quartet No. 8, Windows of Order” the composer uses tempo to mitigate the apparent chaos of atonal music. Four different tempi serve to organize this work into sections, as movements would in tonal works. For example, the lyrical slower tempo of the second section contrasts with the mercurial following section. This work represents a further sophistication of Perle’s musical development and will be challenging and interesting to those whose ears seek out chamber music that is inventive and stimulating. The Daedalus Quartet is adept at clarifying the subtleties of the harmonic landscape and the dynamic changes that Perle’s music demands. The sound is appropriately close and revealing while allowing the music to breathe. This CD is recommended for those wishing to experience a significant but little known American composer.

—Robert Moon




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