With a founding date of 1946, the Fine Arts Quartet has established itself as one of the longest continually active chamber music ensembles. Its members have distinguished themselves as insightful interpreters of the standard quartet literature, but have also been powerful and effective advocates for new music. This CD is a reissue of their 1980 Gasparo recording of three very attractive American quartets. John Downey has never been a household name, even in the rarified world of new music, but his 1971 String Quartet No. 2 shows him to be a composer of substance. His quartet, which was inspired by his familiarity of the rugged coastline of Maine, is in five strongly differentiated movements. Its frankly modernist language is leavened by a melodic and lyric generosity, a masterful deployment of striking textures, and a structural clarity that allows figures to recur often enough to become familiar. Ben Johnston's Quartet No. 4 is a remarkable achievement -- an ecstatic set of variations on "Amazing Grace" that successfully avoids any vestige of sentimentality. Johnston was a disciple of Harry Partch and a passionate advocate of the system of just intonation. In just intonation, the intervals of the scale are dictated precisely by the harmonic series, without the adjustments that have become standardized in Western music as the tempered scale, in order to accommodate the inflexibility of keyboard instruments. Johnston's use of just intonation gives the music purity and brightness that are particularly evident in this piece, because the major third, which is so prominent in the hymn melody, is slightly higher than in tempered intonation; the result is a tonal radiance that perfectly suits the character of the tune. Ruth Crawford Seeger wrote her intellectually rigorous and viscerally compelling string quartet in 1931, when she was 30 years old. It's a remarkably assured example of modernism that must have left its first listeners astonished and still sounds fresh today.
The members of the Fine Arts Quartet play each of the diverse works with the same conviction and spirit they bring to the standard repertoire. They are utterly at ease with the daunting technical demands of the music and their ensemble is flawless. The sound quality is clean and vibrant.