June 1, 2011
The Classical Review
This new coupling of Jefferson Friedman’s Second and Third String Quartets by the Chiara String Quartet brings to disc for the first time one of the crucial partnerships of New York’s live music scene over the past decade and more.
Both works were commissioned by the Chiara ensemble – the Second in 1999, the Third in 2005 – with Friedman, who describes his string quartets as “abstract diary entries” and the act of writing them as “pure expression,” adroitly pushing his players to the limit of their individual and collective strengths and, occasionally, beyond.
The Second Quartet is making its second appearance on disc here, following the Corigliano Quartet’s recording in 2007 on Naxos, where it was coupled with chamber music by that ensemble’s namesake – and Friedman’s onetime tutor – John Corigliano. Certainly, the mentor’s thumbprint is clearly in evidence in the slicing, jabbing chords that announce the first movement, in the emphatic driving momentum of much of what follows, and in the eerily beautiful moments of repose that punctuate it.
But the quartet, composed when Friedman was 24, also demonstrates an astonishing maturity of its own, not least in its probing, prodding, pulsing technical demands; in its ability to marshal rugged declamatory gestures and whispered poetic intimacy; and in the easy fluency and painterly precision with which it negotiates transitions between the two. Indeed, the contrast between the robustly agitated first movement and the elegiac second movement, with its notes of bucolic discordancy faintly reminiscent of Janáček and Bartók, is executed with a telling concision and economy of expression.
The taut, tense third movement also seems to have a Bartókian ghost haunting it, but Friedman infuses it with an improvisatory sense of freedom that allows ample room for manoeuvre, a facet the Chiara players seize upon with considerable aplomb.
The Third Quartet doubly roots itself in the life of the ensemble, the swooning love duet between Julie Yoon’s violin and the cello of Gregory Beaver in the middle movement, titled ‘Act’, warmly alluding to the couple’s announcement of their engagement during its writing; the concluding movement dedicated to the birth of the first daughter of the Chiara’s first violinist, Rebecca Fischer.
The middle movement also boasts an astonishing sequence towards its end where the love duet gives way to a high, heliospheric violin that winds and spirals its way back to earth in a twisting, slow-motion tornado that verges on disintegration before cork-screwing into a dramatic halt.
As with the middle section of the Second Quartet, the concluding ‘Epilogue/Lullaby’ articulates Friedman’s gift for saying more with less, its relative minimalism producing a hauntingly hushed and still coda that evaporates with a delicacy that sounds like Vaughan Williams recast by Henryk Górecki.
Two other tracks here point to, and illuminate, Friedman’s engagement with the sensibilities of popular forms such as rock music and contemporary electronica. Described as ‘remixes’ and created by the experimental electronic duo Matmos – Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt – they offer novel commentaries on the two quartets, the First an engaging, rhythmically vital blend of synthesized pops and clicks and the kind of percussive, industrial-sourced underpinning more readily associated with techno music.
Mix No. 2 is cut from a darker cloth, and one woven from rougher textures, the result a churning cauldron in which ambient sound effects tug, tear and wrestle with Friedman’s original fabric to often disconcerting effect.
Multi-Grammy Award-winning Judith Sherman’s production is as exemplary as you would expect, perfectly framing incisive, intelligent performances by the Chiara String Quartet while offering eloquent testimony to their mutually beneficial partnership with Friedman.