(Barber, String Quartet, op. 11; Ives String Quartets, Nos. 1 and 2, and Scherzo, “Holding Your Own”) Emerson String Quartet, Deutsche Grammophon 435 864-2.
Three of the best string quartets ever composed by Americans, newly recorded by one of the nation’s best chamber ensembles. Samuel Barber’s quartet, written in 1936, when he was twenty-six, has as its heart the aching adagio popularly known in an orchestral version as “Adagio for Strings.” Charles Ives’s first quartet, written in 1896—he was twenty-one and a student at Yale—bears the title From the Salvation Army and uses themes based on hymn tunes. His second quartet, from a decade and a half later, is one of the composer’s difficult, dissonant, craggy masterpieces, and its dense poetry emerges and grows with repeated listenings. In it the four instruments represent four men “who converse, discuss, argue (in re ‘Politick’), fight, shake hands, shut up—then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament.” Thus its three movements are headed “Discussions,” “Arguments,” and “‘The Call of the Mountains.’” The discussion in the first movement seems to be a sectional one, as snatches from “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” are opposed by “Dixie,” which is interrupted by “Marching Through Georgia” before “Hail! Columbia” draws all together. The argument of the second movement runs heated and fast and occasionally violent; it ends “allegro con fistiswatto.” The third movement builds slowly to majestic broadenings in such a dramatic fashion that you can picture four men hiking up a large hill and reaching rocky clearings and long views. The performances of all three pieces could hardly be better.