‘A brilliant group that flashed like a meteor across the cultural scene and was gone by 1956.’ So claims expert annotator Tully Potter for one of the more unexpected volumes in Sony’s ‘Original Jacket’ series (19075925432, ten discs), its subject, the New Music String Quartet, who made their first recordings in May 1949, two pieces by Alan Shulman for Artie Shaw’s LP ‘Modern Music for Clarinet’. The relevant jazz-inflected tracks are featured in the current collection on a cd that also includes a Clarinet Quintet by Douglas Moore, and Wallingford Riegger’s Second Quartet. Most of the featured ‘modern’ repertoire is highly palatable (works by Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, Colin McPhee, Jerome Rosen and Ilhan Usmanbas), the one tough nut being John Cage’s profoundly static String Quartet in Four Parts where, virtually for the duration, the players abandon their decidedly Juilliard Quartet-style vibrancy and adopt instead a white tone that suits the music’s primitivistic ‘minimalist’ slant.
A number of albums originally appeared on vinyl in Columbia’s ‘Modern American Music Series’, the last represented here being Vol. 20. This has the further implication that not everything included involves the New Music String Quartet. I’m thinking in particular of McPhee’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Octet and Thomson’s Capital Capitals for four men and piano. Maybe Sony could consider a ‘Modern American Music Series’ box as well as a box of their valuable and often superbly performed pre-Boulez Second Viennese School performances (mostly with Robert Craft and some superb soloists, such as violinist Israel Baker). Returning to the set under review, we have highly impressive separate Classical and Romantic programmes, with compelling Mendelssohn (Quartets Nos. 2 and 5), an especially sympathetic coupling of two Schumann quartets (Op. 41 Nos. 2 and 3), energetic and sweetly expressive Boccherini quartets, chipper Mozart (Quartets Nos. 2-5) and possibly most impressive of all, an impassioned all-Hugo Wolf cd consisting of the Italian Serenade and the D minor String Quartet. As to personnel, all were first-rate players in their own right, violinists Broadus Erle and Matthew Raimondi, viola player Walter Trampler with only the role of cellist shifting, almost imperceptibly, from Claus Adam (who would soon join the Juilliards), David Soyer (destined to become cellist for the Guarneri Quartet) and for the sole 1956 programme Aldo Parisot (who died last December aged 100). Great playing, this, in a range of repertoire that really put the Quartet through its paces. They also made impressive recordings for the Bartók Records label which could usefully be revived.
Those who manage to sample the set, either the box itself or online, please comment