American Romantics

American String Quartet

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American Romantics Review

by James Manheim

The "American String Quartet" descriptor here applies both to the performers and to the opening work on the program, the String Quartet in F major, Op. 96 of Dvorak. The subtitle was not Dvorak's own, and ever since the work's premiere, debate has raged over the extent of American, and specifically African American, influence on the work, despite Dvorak's plain testimony about its presence ("I should never have written these works 'just so' if I hadn't seen America," as well as other comments). Thus, the American String Quartet, a group that has performed in all 50 American states, is on solid ground in emphasizing the work's folkish themes. Sample the first movement, where the group takes a bit of time to bring out the lyrical theme and to set it off in its own little space. The group give a strong performance of the Dvorak generally, with a notably graceful finale. The String Quartet No. 2 ("American Pilgrimage") was commissioned from Robert Sirota and funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The work is attractively eclectic without being scattered; its four movements depict four times of day and four American locales, drawing on Protestant hymns, gospel music, Native American music, and jazz, as well as quoting (in the "Evening: Manhattan" finale) the Dvorak "American" quartet. The program concludes with Barber's Adagio for strings, in its original version from the String Quartet, Op. 11, played with orchestral scope. Although the pieces were recorded on two different occasions, the location (the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York) was the same, and the sound is clear and unfussy. A recommended program of American works.

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