Site review by Christine Tham November 4, 2007
|I have never heard of the Fry Street Quartet prior to sampling this recording, but based on this I would love to hear more of their performances.
This is a two disc collection of five string quartets from Beethoven, Stravinsky, Ned Rorem and J. Mark Scearce. The selection is not arbitrary, but chosen to reflect a theme of "Modernism" from four composers, each of whom was at a point of "personal confrontation."
For example, of the two quartets from Beethoven, Op. 18 No. 5 was taken from the beginning of his "heroic" period when he was actively breaking away from the stylistic conventions of his predecessors and contemporaries, and actively searching for a unique voice. Op. 132 is one of the last few quartets written before he died, and the transcendental nature of the music is a fitting symbolism for his own departure into a different plane of existence.
Three Pieces for String Quartet represents Stravinsky's first venture into writing for a string quartet, and is one of his most eccentric works. Rorem's String Quartet No. 4 is a set of musical portraits, each based on a painting by Picasso. Finally, Scearse's "Y2K" string quartet, also his first venture into the medium, is an appropriate reflection of the turn of the millennium as well as marking a milestone in the composer's personal life.
The Fry Street Quartet's performance of these works can only be be described as "gripping." I was so absorbed by the performances I couldn't stop the disc once it has started playing. Particularly on the two Beethoven quartets, the rather energetic interpretation provided fresh insights and revelations on these familiar pieces. But it's not just all ferocious energy, there's also a lot of gentleness and lyricism in the performances as well.
As with other IsoMike recordings, this is a 4-channel recording utilizing an interesting microphone placement consisting of four mics suspended from four arms (capturing Front Left, Front Right, Rear Left, and Rear Right). Special heart shaped acoustic baffles are placed between the mics to ensure that the content captured by each microphone is as discrete and unique as possible. The theory behind this is that in a typical microphone setup, each microphone is capturing not only unique content but shared content also captured by other microphones. Unfortunately, the physical placement of these microphones means shared content is captured at slightly different phases by each mic, so when the recording is played back you get the possibility of phase cancellation from the channels. Hopefully an IsoMike recording should result in less phase cancellation, therefore a clearer and less muddy sound. You can see a photo of the IsoMike system, as well as a description of the IsoMike technique, in the cover booklet.
The theory seems plausible, but does it result in a better recording? Well, you can judge for yourself by listening to this disc. I certainly found the recording to be one of the best representations of a string quartet I have ever heard, with a sense of spaciousness and air that is possibly due to the higher channel separation. I suspect the mics were rather close to the quartet, as I can what seemed to be breathing sounds (or perhaps these are artefacts from the bowing). Judging from the rather high average sound level, I am also wondering if some compression or peak limiting has been applied. Then again, a string quartet does not have a lot of dynamic contrast, which may perhaps allow for a higher recording level to be used. The venue is the Austad Auditorium at the Val. A Browning Center for the Performing Arts at Weber University, Ogden, Utah. The recording sound seems richer than another IsoMike recording I recently reviewed (Joe McQueen & friends: Ten at 86) which was rather dry, again leading me to suspect the microphones are fairly closely placed to the performers.
Review by Beagle March 14, 2006 (9 of 10 found this review helpful)
(disc two below)
When this disc arrived and the player got to the “Song of Thanksgiving”*, I was literally ‘floored’: I just sat yoga-style on the carpet and listened and listened ‘til 'way past midnight. The cellist wife and I have played this and the Haydn disc every day since. Bear with me while I try to communicate my love for this recording.
The Beethoven disc finished again just now, and I put on the Guarneri Trio disc because I hadn’t listened to it for a while -- and wife says, “What sort of recording is that?”. I say “Schubert trios”, and she snorts, “No! what sort of recording?”, so I say “SACD”. “Funny,” she says, “I usually can’t hear the differences you are always going on about, but this sounds rather ‘muffled’ after the Fry disc.”. IsoMike!
I won’t repeat what I said in the FSQ Haydn review (all good). Instead, I will share the wife’s astute observation that this was a virtually one-take recording. She noted split-second tone adjustments which typically would be obscured by multiple takes and editing**. Did this detract from her enjoyment? “No, it’s much better this way; it’s honest.”. I took the matter up with Anne Francis, the FSQ’s cellist:
“Yes, your wife is absolutely right about the Beethoven. In fact, we originally recorded both of the Beethoven quartets for our own use, with no intent to actually release them. So there were very few takes in the first place and because of a technical glitch (some lost sound files), we had only one take for two of the Op. 18 #5 movements! We were talked into releasing them by our engineer. It made for some stressful and creative editing, but we were pleased with what we came to in the end.”
Maybe that is what floored me: musicians playing without thought of audience. I have heard op. 132 live many times in the last 30 years, and I love the Veghs, the New Budapests and the Lindsays. But this FSQ recording is a step closer to Beethoven.
As on the Haydn disc, the FSQ has telescoped a lifetime of music into a pair of works.
Op. 18 no. 5 in A Major
When the young hopeful from Bonn got to Wien, he presented his notes of introduction to Mozart and Haydn, who in turn introduced him to a few princes. Always the pianist, he played his piano trumps first. But the princes were laying down florins for quartets, so Louis wrote a set of quartets for ‘dem Fürsten Lobkowitz’. Although it smacks of clairvoyance that young Haydn’s op. 9/4 sounds like Beethoven wrote it, it is entirely unremarkable that Beethoven’s op. 18/5 sounds like his teacher Haydn wrote it. It was jolly good stuff for a hick from the sticks; some people said he might be the new Mozart....
Fast-forward a quartet-century through a compositional career that had peaks and troughs like the mountains of the moon***. Our Louis is now a prematurely-old 55, with bad hearing and worse liver. Worse yet, his music is being shoved off the charts by some joker named Gioacchino Rossini. His response to the new generation is to restudy the older: Bach****.
Op. 132 in A Minor
“How strange the change from major to minor” says Cole Porter. There is nothing left of Haydn in Beethoven’s Lates (nor anything quite like them until Bartók). The conventional ‘conversation of friends’ is replaced by interior monologue. The sonata scaffolding has been abandoned, leaving the music to stand by its own logic. The peculiar logic here is the deadly interplay of a sick body and a vigorous mind, echoed in the music by a pulsed alteration between lugubrious Molto Adagio and rebounding Andante. Beethoven didn’t need a doctor to tell him his months were numbered; before modern medicine, any serious illness portended death. This work possesses an unequaled beauty forged in that most heartfelt emotion: joy at being alive, if only for a while longer. As George Burns said, “At my age, any day you wake up is a good day.”.
* Op. 132, mvt III: “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenden an die Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart” (Holy Thanksgiving-song of a convalescent to the Godhead, in the Lydian mode).
** E.g. the heavy editing which creates the illusion of perfection in Yo-yo Ma’s discs.
*** 6 compositions in 1801, 24 in 1802, 9 in 1803.
**** Hence the Grosse Fuge, initially a massive finale to a quartet, then an independent work.
IsoMike is breath-taking.*
The FSQ are amazing.*
You have to buy this disc too, in order to get the Beethoven disc, right? Nil desperado: it’s interesting stuff in glorious higher-fi. The Stravinsky is a tiny gem, and the Rorem piece most certainly bears repeated listening. It is sad music, sarcastic at times, sometimes beautiful. If you’re not ready for the 20th century yet, just skip the first movements here. I sense a thematic link running through this disc, not of ‘voices’ but of paintings, specifically 20th century modernist art. If you’re still curious, here are three micro-essays on what I hear (and see):
There are two Igors to love or hate: the earlier clown and the later theorist. This work is early in the former period -- but don’t expect Firebird or Petrushka. ‘Grotesques’ is art-talk for stuff that looks, mmm… grotesque**. Igor’s three pieces are short and not at all sweet. While he wrote them, WWI happened, and the Europe of the Strausses was blasted to rubble and walking wounded. ‘Danse’ is a gimpy march for amputees, ‘Excentrique’ makes several pathetic attempts at forced gaiety, then lapses into ‘Cantique’: a lean and hungry variation on “A mighty fortress is our God’ (all this in 1, 2 and 3 minutes respectively). Musically, this little work is a dictionary for the century to come. As far as I know, Igor invented it all right there. I have this micro-masterpiece performed by the Italiano, Alban Berg and Goldner quartets. The Goldners bring out the metronomic rhythm and the Bergs stress the edgy tonality, but my favourite (in golden mono!) is the Italianos who resonantly milk it for its varied colours. Colour is what I also hear in the FSQs here – and hear it better than I imagined possible.
If you were alive during the 20th century, you will instantly recognise Rorem’s titles (‘Child holding a dove’, ‘Acrobat’, ‘Death of Harlequin’) as early Picasso’s***. As with Stravinsky, the first piece (‘Minotaur’) is a rude wake-up call; its time signatures are “very fast, ugly & relentless - insistent - cajoling - pleading – frantic”. It’s amazing how irritating close-set intervals can be, and the FSQ does it very well thank you! That edginess relaxes immediately into the sleep-inducing ‘Child holding a dove’, and so on…. Is the translation of visual art into music successful? It must be, because I like Rorem’s pieces better than I like Picasso’s originals. Rorem himself seems to have had reservations about the man, judging by his time signatures for Pablo’s ‘Self Portrait’: “always frantic & coarse / motionless, cold, removed - horror & indifference…”. The cello in high tessitura and the viola have a ball here, painting egocentric, nasal self-pity. Fun, fun and more fun; I like it a lot. Here’s to more Rorem on SACD, please!
J. Mark Searce was born in 1960, and thus has less of a cultural legend encumbering his name than do Igor and Ned. Most composers feel obliged to write at least one string quartet, usually in their late twenties or early thirties; Searce was a mature 40 when he wrote ‘Y2K’, so there is experience, musical and personal, behind this first quartet. It is emphatically elegaic, expressing what I assume is some private grief (since I don’t know anyone who grieved the passing of the 20th century). It’s an official genuine quartet: four instruments, four movements – what Cage calls ‘four for four’. A single motif underlies the four movements, and in the first movement it shapes itself into a reference to Samuel Barber’s Adagio****. In the second movement grief evolves into melancoly. The third movement manages some forced gaiety, like Stravinsky’s second, and has some really fun cello pizzicato and ‘finger music’ (fingers slapping, drumming fretboard). It is hard to say what the final movement is; call it thematic recapitulation. I would like to hear Searce’s Second String Quartet, written one hopes in a more manic mood.
* Cf Haydn, Beethoven reviews.
** Art: http://images.google.ca/images?svnum=10&hl=en&lr=&q=grotesques&btnG=Search
*** Art: http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/reviews/lamm/Images/lamm10-23-2.jpg
**** Orig. 2nd mvt of Barber’s first quartet, then stand-alone for strings, then for choir, and finally the tear-jerking filmscore for 'Platoon'.
Was this review helpful to you?