Small Ensembles

As much as I love the power of a symphony orchestra or the wall of sound from a contemporary big band, there’s something special about small ensembles that keeps me going back to them—trios, quartets, chamber works. I had always preferred playing in small groups and I prefer listening to them too. It’s the intimate interplay among the musicians that intrigues me. Those delicate connects don’t happen with large groups where there is more than one player per part. Where the individual disappears into the whole. Where layers and colors created through various combinations of instruments and doublings override the exchange of ideas between individual musical lines and individual musicians. In small ensemble works the composer can create more intricate and complex interactions that would otherwise get clouded in large ensembles. Jazz musicians, in particular, have the freedom to play off each others riffs, handing off their inspiration to one another and back again—musical ping-pong. In small groups, each musician is meant to be heard, each carries the entire burden of a single strand of thought. This allows, even in written compositions, the musicians to emotionally reciprocate from player to player, player to group. They have the ability share a group identity without sacrificing their own. In large groups this kind of liberty would result in slop—it’s why they have a conductor. It’s why the individuals get lost and we as listeners lose that connection with them too. But with small groups we get a direct link to the music and the musician. That’s a sweet treat. Instead of the bombast and in-your-face attack of bands and orchestras, a richer more refined presentation can be relished.

This brings me to Ginastera, Alberto, the Argentinian composer, previously reviewed in [More from South of the Border], and a recent addition to my library, a CD of his three string quartets. Once more, Alberto gives us more than we might expect, and more than we could ever imagine. Ginastera continually surprises the listener with novelty—and these quartets were written over 40 years ago in 1971, ’58 and ’48. Whereas the orchestral works reviewed last time were from the earliest period of his career, distinctly influenced by South American folk and its pre-Columbian roots, the quartets reveal a progression in his style and maturation of his musical language. His native roots have now sprouted to put on a sparkling display of brightly colored tropical flora with an unmatched class of sophisticated urbanity. The quartets of Bela Bartok are regarded by many music historians as the quintessential examples of the genre from the 20th century. Perhaps not. If only Ginastera had written more of them, his may have garnered more attention. Despite this lack of attention, his quartets make Bartok’s sound naïve. He extracts textures from the strings and develops a chromaticism unlike anyone else’s. This distinctive mark on the form makes for some captivating listening.

The third quartet is by far the most difficult. Written completely in dodecaphonic serialism (12-tone atonalism, e-gads!) makes number three the outlier. Not only is the theoretical basis out of bounds, he sets four poems, two by Juan Ramón Jiménez, one each by Federico Garcia Lorca and Rafael Alberti, to music, incorporating a soprano for the vocals—no longer strictly a string quartet. Taken together, the serialism and the soprano, I can’t tell you how reluctant I was to give the 3rd quartet a chance. First listening proved tolerable enough that I gave it a second some days later, but on the second listening my response was, “Not so much.” I forced myself to get through it and thought I’d never listen again. Yet, I did give it another try. On the third listening, I realized the melancholy and dolor have profound affective qualities and that this is a piece to be reserved for occasions when one is emotionally up for it. All five movements are more dissonant than his earlier works, but amazingly lyrical. Contradiction of terms? Ginastera’s sense of form, harmony and melody is the key to his genius for overcoming the brutal nature of atonal music. I can’t give higher praise. And the topper, soprano Lucy Shelton delivers an impeccable performance. You have no clue how hellishly difficult it is to sing atonal music. Ms Shelton does it with precise intonation, miraculous control, and such deep felt expression that despite my almost total lack of comprehension of Spanish, I could nearly understand the words simply from her vocalizations. And despite my hypercritical response to operatic voices, she has the talent to sooth my ears that few, very few, singers can do.

Quartets 1 & 2 are also more dissonant that his early work, but he uses it not for the sake of beating us with angst and terror, rather, in a manner of creating beauty out of its tension, an exquisite tension that heightens the agitation of the rhythmic elements. Here we hear Ginastera’s energy coming forward in a wild stampede, especially in the 2nd quartet with the incessant grinding of the first and last movements. I know this may not sound attractive, but he’s using this grinding suspense as a tool to whip the music around and to elevate the polar moments of euphoria. Although these pieces have lost the sense of dance from the indigenous musical forms that were prominent in the early works, those influences still echo in the background. They remain meaningful to the compositions while enabling Alberto to impart his unique soul into the music.

(||) Rating — Music : A ║ Performance : A+ ║ Recording : A- ║ Ginastera String Quartets, Ensō Quartet, Lucy Shelton, Soprano, Naxos, © 2009 

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