Naxos' Four American Quartets features four later twentieth century American string quartets, dating from 1948-1995, as performed by the Fine Arts Quartet, the same Fine Arts Quartet that has been around since 1946 and resident at the University of Wisconsin. Naturally, the lineup has changed completely from the original group, though until the departure of violist Yuri Gandelsman in 2008 the membership of the Fine Arts Quartet had been relatively stable for a quarter century. Though replaced in the meantime by interim violist Chauncey Patterson, Gandelsman fills the viola chair here. The Fine Arts Quartet has been involved in a slew of recordings for Naxos, of which this release is only the second entry. However, as most of this activity is focused in more conventional, European fare such as Schumann and Mendelssohn, this disc of American works is particularly welcome; the original Fine Arts Quartet was renowned for its pioneering recordings of the earliest American chamber literature.
There is certainly no law against string quartet members composing -- Claus Adam, one-time cellist of the Juilliard Quartet, wrote a superb Cello Concerto -- and it is of interest that Fine Arts first violinist Ralph Evans should lead off this collection with his own string quartet, begun in 1966 but not completed until 1995. By his own account, Evans was unimpressed with formalistic music current in 1966 and wanted to create something comparably rigorous, but non-confrontational and entertaining. Indeed, the result is whimsical and clever, and in relation to the Babbitts and Boulezes of that time, this quartet has a Flying Spaghetti Monster-ish aspect to it. It is the Darmstadt school turned on its head, containing no specific references to pre-existing music, yet Evans constructs fleeting figments of tonality in a formal design that is architectonic, rather than based on psychological form or other established strategies. Evans' quartet is both engaging and amusing and well deserves recording.
Philip Glass' String Quartet No. 2, "Company," is relatively familiar company indeed, recorded by Kronos, the Smith Quartet, and in at least two arrangements. Compared to these other versions, Fine Arts' reading is leaner, less fluid, and more marked, and it is stimulating to hear this quartet played with a little more bite than is the norm. The admixture of folk forms and futurism in George Antheil's String Quartet No. 3 is -- pardon the pun -- a heady one, and Fine Arts' recording represents a positive step toward establishing this excellent quartet to a well-deserved place in the main quartet literature. Bernard Herrmann's Echoes for String Quartet makes for a rather odd, and somewhat disquieting, match with the rest of the program. Echoes was an example of Herrmann making lemonade out of the lemons that life gives; at the time he was separated from his wife and deeply engaged in what turned out to the be the death throes of his professional relationship with Alfred Hitchcock. While this is a fine performance, it concludes the album on a down note; it might have been better placed in the middle or even at the start of the program. Nevertheless, it is nice to have Herrmann's work included in the context of other serious musicians as opposed to that of other film composers, or most commonly, his own context. Overall, Naxos' Four American Quartets is a refreshing and intriguing program that whets one's appetite for the remaining slate of Fine Arts Quartet releases.