September 27, 2019
Navona Records 6239
Total Time: 76:59
The Altius Quartet formed at Southern Methodist University in 2011 and currently is the quartet-in-residence at the University of Colorado-Boulder. This third release continues their exploration of new music for the string quartet by eight diverse composers both in single and multi-movement works. For this release, Navona has paired them by similar explorative techniques or musical parallels.
Bruce Babcock’s tonal and engaging The Present Moment opens the disc. A motivic idea is used as a unfying factor to provide a moment of reflection and commentary before it moves into a new expression and development in this 12-minute work. A beautiful thematic line is featured in the beginning with an exciting more rhythmical idea to provide structural interest to this often gentle work. First is a very brief three-movement work by Nora Morrow. Rose Moon. Like Babcock’s piece, it focuses on a specific motive that then blossoms outward while eploring the sonorities of the quartet across three movements. The central movement features beautiful harmonic writing and an engaging thematic thread making it stand out a bit from its surrounding partners. The final movement has a nice Baroque dance-like quality.
Next are pieces that explore American folk music. First is Gary Smart’s Three Fantasies on African American Songs. Altius likes to program music that crosses aesthetic and cultural boundaries and this more bluesy third stream-like piece is certainly in that category. The outer movements incorporate more familiar melodies from the tradition. These are morphed into new and interesting statements. The central movement is a prison song originally recorded by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Here the sound of axes striking is imitated in the music against simple repeated phrase. In Jonathan Newmark’s Tom Dooley Without the Fringe On Top provides a moment of lighter writing with references to Oklahoma! and the folk tune mentioned in the title, both somewhat deconstructed to create more modern, visceral energy. It was part of a speedwriting contest.
The second half of the disc features slightly more abstract works. Alistair White’s Two Panels is conceived around polar opposities related to the sense of chaos or line, as well as components of time and space (which may also connect to registral considerations). Harmonically we move toward a more atonal expression which continues into Janice Macaulay’s intimate Three Pieces where ideas are transferred across the members of the quartet. The central movement is quite lyrical with the final movement moving into a more intense transference of skittering motives. The piece received the “Best of Category” prize for Chamber Music at the Delius Festival in 1983. A bit of descriptive writing returns as Beth Mehocic gives musical voice to her African Grey parrot’s dreams of flying from his cage in Picasso’s Flight where one can almost here the fluttering of wings and moments of anxious wishfulness. There is a bit of Stravinsky around the edges of this particular work.
The album concludes with Pheld Dean Witter’s String Quartet No. 4 (2014). A weightier first movement features differing episoides that flirt with chromaticism as they move in unexpected ways. After a calm central movment, the finale moves forward with great energy and makes for an exciting conclusion in modern harmonic dress. It is a very accessible addition to the repertoire.
As with Altius’ concerts, and Navona’s releases in general, there is a little something for everyone here. The folkish pieces are intriguing expressions of blues and folk influences that slowly move us from the tonal contemporary sound of the opening works to more intense atonal expressions as the program continues. Certainly, this is another fine exploration of modern writing for string quartets that should be of interest to fans of this genre. The music is certainly quite engaging throughout.