Harlem Quartet

Walter Piston: String Quartets Nos. 1, 3 & 5

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The string quartet involved in this Naxos-label release is noteworthy; its youthful members are all top prizewinners at the Sphinx Competition, an annual U.S. event geared toward promoting diversity in classical music and recognizing the talents of African-American and Latin American string players. It might have been good to hear a bit more about how they happened to record string quartets by Walter Piston, but all you get in the notes (in English only) are the usual biography and program-note-style descriptions of the works performed. In the event, the players deliver fine performances of Piston, whose writing flattered players of stringed instruments, and there are precious few indications that one is hearing student musicians. They are especially effective in the lovely, long-lined slow movements of the String Quartet No. 1 of 1933 and the rarely played String Quartet No. 3 (1947), one of the finest American works in the Bartók style. The String Quartet No. 1 is a neo-classic work that shows the influence of Hindemith in its various polyphonic devices, and the Harlem group is equal to the task of clarifying the dense textures of its outer movements. Only the String Quartet No. 5, written in 1962 during the serialist totalitarianism, seems dated today, and if the intent was to give these young players "safe" works, it didn't quite work out that way; the String Quartet No. 3, especially, ought to be returned to the repertory.

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