COMPOSERS: Kim,Kirchner,Piston,Rands & Davidovsky
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Harvard Composers
WORKS: Works by Piston, Kirchner, Kim, Rands & Davidovsky
PERFORMER: Mendelssohn Quartet; Lucy Shelton (soprano)
CATALOGUE NO: SACD-1264
Of these five works by composer-professors at the venerable Harvard University, only the 1933 First Quartet of Walter Piston could be called academic, and then only because it’s conventionally shaped and beautifully written. But composition meets historical studies in Earl Kim’s 1989 settings of Verlaine and Baudelaire in a musical language almost indistinguishable from Ravel’s; and, in a different way, in the 1998 Fifth Quartet of the Argentinian-born Mario Davidovsky, which draws on the intervals and mood of the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ in Beethoven’s Op. 132, albeit without quotation or pastiche. Thoroughly original, though, are Second Quartets by two greatly underestimated composers: one from 1958 by Leon Kirchner with a characteristic sense of urgent narrative; and one from 1994 by the British-born Bernard Rands which is wound around an armature of expressive melody.
The Rands and Davidovsky were written for the Mendelssohn String Quartet during its nine-year residency at Harvard, and the group sounds confident and well integrated in these and the earlier pieces – with distinguished assistance from Lucy Shelton in the Kim. But in stereo (I haven’t heard the surround-sound also available on this SACD), her voice floats free of the clear sound-picture afforded the quartet, creating an oddly disembodied effect. Anthony Burton