REVIEWS:  metier msvcd 92051 Rochberg & Schwatz - "Variations" Quartets


George Rochberg's Third Quartet from 1972 is a masterpiece that rejects serial modernism, going beyond quotation in a revival of the styles of Mahler and Beethoven. Like Del Tredici, but a much more substantial figure, Rochberg began as a serialist but rebelled against the avant garde straitjacket, believing that 'modern' doesn't have to imply 'modernist'. The Quartet is no postmodern pastiche either: "I was trying to find ways to anchor atonal adventures in tonal thinking... don't know what I call it, and certainly don't want to diminish or demean it by calling it 'postmodern'", the composer wrote recently. Elliott Schwartz's Bellagio Variations from 1981 is his only string quartet, and a tougher nut. More memorable than other works I've heard by this composer, it gets powerful advocacy from The Kreutzer Quartet.
Andy Hamilton

Over the past 30 years artists in all disciplines have felt the need to question (an in many cases outright reject) long-held assumptions about originality and their own relationships to the past. In the field of music (and I don't mean just symphonic and chamber music) this has led to a wholesale reevaluation of what is means to compose. A new CD on the British label Metier by the Kreutzer Quartet offers a marvellous opportunity to hear deeply committed new performances of two works that were created in direct response to these issues, George Rochberg's Third String Quartet and Elliott Schwartz's Bellagio Variations.

The Rochberg Third Quartet is a vast work lasting just over three-quarters of an hour. In the course of its five movements the performers are presented with an almost schizoid range of musical styles. From slashing, angular expressionism to grotesque Bartokian marches to late-romantic lyricism, the only constant is that every phrase must be saturated with the highest possible degree of expressive emphasis. There is hardly a note in the score that does not possess one or more stress markings. The members of the Kreutzer Quartet handle these challenges with breathtaking sensitivity. Passages marked violente, furioso and wild! are played with terrific force without ever sounding ugly. The execution of the opening bars of the third movement (Variations) is an absolute gem. Marked Adagio sereno, molto espressivo e tranquillo; pure, this passage has violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved unfurling a stratospherically high, sustained melody over a warm-hued, closely spaced chordal accompaniment. In high, soft, densely scored passages like this one the quartet's tone never threatens to disintegrate and their pitch is utterly secure.

Elliott Schwartz's Bellagio Variations (1980) is also a work that questions assumptions about style, history and originality, though in a musical idiom that values conciseness, brevity and a vaguely sinister sense of playfulness over the epic and the visionary. Where Rochberg keeps his forays into diverse styles and periods confined to self-contained movements, Schwartz (like Charles Ives before him) lets everything run together. The abundance of material from which Schwartz fashions his theme reveals his essentially eclectic nature. These include a motive from Mahler's First Symphony, a snippet of the Bowdoin College flight song, a quote from a work by his teacher Otto Luening, a reworking of a flute Sonatina that he himself composed as a student and a tiny fragment from a piece by Ross Lee Finney. If Rochberg's Third Quartet is a Joseph Cornell box blown up to the size of a house, Schwartz's Bellagio Variations might be thought of as eight Rauschenberg 'combines' shrunk down to the size of postcards.

Like much of Schwartz's work, the Bellagio Variations can be experienced on several levels. Indeed, one could almost think of the piece as a set of variations on the idea of variations. The composer subverts (perhaps varies is a better word) many of the signposts a listener might normally expect to find guiding him or her through a work cast in this form. This is not to say that the piece lacks surface coherence. Four of the eight variations (III, V, VI and VIII) feature a different member of the quartet in a solo role. The remaining four focus on a range of ensemble playing techniques. This creates the feeling of a sequence of dramatic scenes contrasted with solo arias. Pauses between variations III and IV and VII and VIII give the piece the feeling of being cast in three large movements. With committed performers, this music can take on a dark, kaleidoscopic sparkle all its own. In the Kreutzer's hands the Bellagio Variations receive a wonderfully nuanced performance, by turns (and sometimes all at once) taut, luxurious, witty and ferocious, entirely befitting the wilfully disorienting, dream-like nature of the music.
Tom Myron

George Rochberg's String Quartet no. 3 is one of the great essays in this medium of the latter half of the 20th century. How wonderful to hear the Kreutzer Quartet perform this influential work - on a level rivalling that of the premiere recording by the now-defunct Concord Quartet so many years ago - in a new disc from Metier. Here again is a piece that plays with expectations, from the severe structural Stravinskyian brusqueries of the opening movement to the warm glow of the quasi-Beethoven theme-and-variations of the middle movement. Flanking this are two headstrong Bartok/Stravinsky marches, concluding with a Mahler-tinged finale. Through it all, Rochberg finds motivic and thematic links that never allow for the music to come off as a disjointed college, yet at the same time never allow one to escape a certain intriguing sense of stylistic schizophrenia. If the Kreutzer lingers and thrusts a bit differently than the Concord, so much the better by now. Composed only a few years after the Rochberg, Elliott Schwartz's Bellagio Variations is a stimulating multi-stylistic wander through a labyrinthine set of variations on a revealed theme of Otto Luening,. Schwartz twists all the knobs, from spiky to sentimental, to keep the listener engaged throughout. This is a keeper album.
Mark Alburger