Another Birthday, Another String Quartet

February 22, 2008

homepage_final_newest2.jpg Vastness of output is not always a reliable gage of a classical composer’s success. Max Reger reached an opus 106 before he died at 43, and many of his opus numbers contain many compositions within them — sometimes 60 or so. On the other end of the statistical chart, however, is someone like Maurice Duruflé, whose catalogue gets to only opus 14 in his 84 years. But because of the extreme popularity of some of his works (the Requiem, his Suite, etc.), Duruflé’s slender list probably gets more performances than the far richer catalogue of Reger.

It’s a cheering fact that we have composers in this century who are both prolific and constantly performed. Tonight (on his 47th birthday) Lowell Liebermann‘s new String Quartet No. 4 was performed at the Mannes College concert hall by the Orion String Quartet. That it is already opus 103 in a catalogue that features operas, symphonies, and concertos is an earnest of Mr. Liebermann’s industry. That he is performed with great regularity around the world is a sign of something even happier. (And it is an illustration of the restraint of the current large list of performances on his Web site that even tonight’s important concert is absent.)

The virtuosi of the Orion gave a persuasive performance of a work that kept me at least figuratively on the edge of my seat. The half-hour work is performed without break, beginning with a very substantial, sober slow movement (if we can use that term within a continuous work) of free imitative counterpoint. Don’t imagine something suavely post-Modern, but rather something that is Romantic without turning its back on Modernism (or vice-versa).

Without being in the least gimmicky or anything but well-ordered, the piece went on to incorporate a variety of coloristic devices (mutes, double-stop cello pizzicato strum, harmonics) and of textures (antiphonal sections between upper and lower instruments, chorale-like texture with solo connective tissue, faux-bourdon-like parallelism, several bicinia evoking a sort of Bergian Lassus, and what at one point threatened to be a fugue but wasn’t). The deeply contrapuntal nature of much of the work led later on to a more extensive fugato, and by that point there had been enough variety-with-integrity that I thought nothing would surprise me. In that I was wrong.

With a suddenness that caught me, at least, off guard, we were presented with a bluesy slow swing in 4/4 meter that made me think that there had finally been a pretty serious compositional misjudgment. It wasn’t just that the music veered off into something that seemed, frankly, slightly louche in an attractive way. There seemed to be a contextual problem. But the best artists create problems to solve them. I assume that the evident breach of stylistic decorum that I sensed was meant to have the effect that it did have on me, for the moment of mild anxiety I felt about the piece’s formal integrity only made the sensation of pleasure the greater when the material continued to develop in a way that didn’t just lead back to an idiom more compatible with the first half of the quartet, but the more “popular” style that had come so suddenly seemed to become integrated into the whole after the fact. I mean to emphasize here that this ex post facto justification for the startling departure created a highly original type of pleasure. About eight minutes before the end, I had a strong impression that here was a serious musical work with a certain kinship to a film of Almodóvar: almost ridiculous catholicity of styles and degrees of seriousness. But all of them, either through instinct or formal discipline, had been corralled into a cohesive work of art that is finally serious indeed — in its totality.

My tentativeness on that point — as indeed in everything I’ve observed here about the work — is based on only one hearing, after all, with no examination of the score.

But, oh, how encouraging to hear such a work from this hard-working composer/performer as he begins his forty-eighth year! I can’t do better than say as the Jesuits do on such occasions: Ad multos annos!

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