Ives: Works for string quartet (complete)

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COMPOSERS: Ives
LABELS: Dabringhaus und Grimm Gold
WORKS: Works for string quartet (complete)
PERFORMER: Leipzig Quartet; Steffen Schleiermacher (piano), Yeon-Hee Kwak (cor anglais)
CATALOGUE NO: MDG 307 1143-2
When this CD arrived I had my doubts about it. Ives’s joyously anarchic style, where you might have two or three marching-band tunes chirruping away at different speeds, seemed to cry out for an orchestral palette. How could it transfer to the austere medium of the string quartet?

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One answer is… by cheating. Several pieces here involve other instruments, including a marvellous depiction of Hallowe’en night, with its ribbons of scales in different keys rudely interrupted by thwacks on the bass drum. The boldest piece on the CD uses a piano to create a double-layered sonority, the instrument boldly up-front, the strings only faintly audible behind it. Then, in a moment of pure amazement, the roles are reversed. But Ives was also a master of the string quartet in its own right. The sense of straining against the medium becomes part of the effect, as in the sublime end of the Second Quartet – a real masterpiece – where a tangle of high lines unwinds over a descending bell figure in the cello.

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The performances are ideal. This quartet understands that those clashing lines and rhythms aren’t some abstract experiment, they’re an expression of Ives’s visionary breed of Romanticism. And the recording is marvelously close and vivid.