Examiner.com: The Cypress String Quartet’s ‘American Album’
Last week saw the release by the Cypress String Quartet (violins Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, viola Ethan Filner, and cello Jennifer Kloetzel) of their latest CD on their own label. The recording is entitled The American Album; and it provides three markedly different perspectives on what we might call “American” music from three decidedly different eras of our country’s history. What makes those perspectives interesting, however, is that each of them has its own form of European connection.
The first selection is the Opus 96 string quartet in F major by Antonín Dvořák “American”). Dvořák first sketched out this quartet over three days during his 1893 visit to a Czech farming community in Spillville, Iowa, shortly after having written his Opus 95 symphony in E minor (“From the New World”) in New York. Both of these works are based on original thematic material; but the quartet tends to be more suggestive of how music was being made in late nineteenth-century America, particularly when removed from the formalities of the concert hall. The beginning of the Vivace ma non troppo that concludes Opus 96, in particular, can easily be taken as an evocation of barn dance music, without explicitly quoting any source material Dvořák may have heard in the course of his encounters with Spillville social life.
The recording then continues with the “Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes” by Charles Tomlinson Griffes. Griffes learned composition in Germany from Engelbert Humperdinck, and most of his music reflects that German education. This string quartet was composed between 1918 and 1919 and did not receive its first performance until seven months after his death on April 8, 1920. What I find most interesting about these dates is that Ferruccio Busoni composed the first book of his Red Indian Diary, a suite of four movements for piano, between June and August of 1915. In Busoni’s case we know that he tried to examine source material, the music documented by Natalie Curtis in The Indians’ Book.
Whether or not Griffes knew of Busoni’s project or results, it is clear that both composers encountered the same problem. Most of the music that Curtis recorded is chant with relatively little melodic content. In Busoni: The Composer Anthony Beaumont observed that Busoni really had to scour through Curtis’ collection in order to find enough themes for the four movements of his Diary; and, as we might expect, by the time he was done with them, they barely resembled the source material. Whether or not Griffes was as scrupulous about his sources as Busoni had been, there is a good chance that most of the melodic content (and all of the harmonic) had been filtered through his personal reflections. However, if the result does not amount to particularly good anthropology, it still makes for an appealing mood piece.
Mood is also the strong suit in the final selection, Samuel Barber’s Opus 11 string quartet, composed between 1936 and 1938 and begun when the composer was in Italy. This is best known for its middle movement, which would later be expanded to the “Adagio for Strings.” As might be expected, the quartet version is significantly more transparent; and I find that, where most performances are concerned, that transparency discloses more poignant emotion than the melodramatic qualities of a full ensemble of strings. Furthermore, the quartet puts this adagio in context between two Molto allegro movements. The first is the more extended, episodic to a degree that often feels like bursts of energy interrupted by fits of stasis. The third movement revisits some of this material, but is much shorter to the point of being disquietingly abrupt.
The key virtue of the Cypress recording is that this group appreciates the sharp shifts in character as the tracks proceed from Dvořák through Griffes to Barber. This is less an account of “historical progress” as it is a journey through changing worldviews. Cypress has found the unique voice that characterizes each selection; and, taken as a whole, their execution provides an innovative way to ponder the question of just what “American music” is and how it got that way.The Cypress String Quartet’s ‘American Album’ - National Classical Music | Examiner.com