Harbison/Wernick/Schuller

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COMPOSERS: Harbison/Wernick/Schuller
LABELS: DG
WORKS: String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 4; String Quartet No. 3
PERFORMER: Emerson String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 437 537-2 DDD
Recent string quartets by three Americans with well established reputations in the East Coast academic community, played by a currently high-profile quartet with proven skills in 20th-century music as well as the classics. The Baroque allusions of John Harbison’s Second Quartet of 1987 – integrated though they are into a cleverly designed five-movement structure that capitalises on an expressive rise and fall which avoids mere pastiche – ultimately contribute to a piece which strikes me as cold: Tippett without the human involvement, even the human failing.

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The Scherzo of Wernick’s 1990 Fourth Quartet borrows thematic material from Dvorák’s Piano Trio in F minor, yet the work as a whole is the most Modernist-sounding of the three. The composer’s ambiguous response to questions of his own such as ‘Can the past be re-created?’ at least leads, in this ingeniously constructed two-movement work, to music of more than simulated passion. Schuller’s Third Quartet of 1986 is dedicated to Louis Krasner, the violinist who premiered Berg’s Violin Concerto. His use of a Beethoven sketch fragment owned by Krasner, with which Schuller’s own note row has an apparently accidental connection, is but one compelling idea in perhaps the most successful fusion of past and present on this disc. Performances are first class. Keith Potter