Monday, 18 October 2010

CD Review

William Grant Still:Danzas de Panama for String Quartet
Antonin Dvorak: String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96 (American)
Samuel Barber: String Quartet in B Minor, Opus 11
George Gerswhin: Lullaby for String Quartet
Serafin String Quartet
Centaur CRC 3050

The Serafin Quartet are a young American group who made their debut in 2004. The group's name comes from the 18th century violin maker, Sanctus Serfin, who made violinist Kate Ransom's violin. The group's line up is democratic, with both Kate Ransom and Timothy Schwarz taking turns as first violin. The remaining line up consists of Ana Tsinadze, viola, and Lawrence Stomberg, cello.

They have just released their first commercial CD on the Centaur label. This consists of an interesting programme which explores might make an American quartet, with works by William Grant Still, Dvorak, Samuel Barber and George Gershwin. This programme formed the core of the quartet's visit to London in September when they gave a recital at St. John's Smith Square.

The group open with William Grant Still's Danzas de Panama, a 4 movement suite for string quartet based on traditional melodies collected by Elisabeth Waldo. The cultural influences range from music of African Slaves to Spanish-Indian. Though Grant Still calls for some imaginative drum type beats, where the instrumentalist beats on the body of the instrument, the work is by and large quite traditional. Whereas in El Salon Mexico Aaron Copland (2 years younger than Grant Still) takes you physically into the Mexican dance hall, Grant Still is very much based in the salon or drawing room. His well-made arrangements are attractive and light, but they feel rather conventional and sanitised compared to Copland. But Grant Still's music is a relative rareity in the catalogue and the Serafin Quartet give his suite a lively and infectious performance.

They follow this with Dvorak's American Quartet, written in 1893 in response to meeting up with Czech immigrants in Iowa. Though the work does hint at Dvorak's inspirations in the New World, much of the piece is still based in Dvorak's old Czech world. The Serafin Quartet play with a pleasing melodiousness and a lightness of touch, but there were times when I would have liked more of an element of darkness to creep in. Theirs is a fine, slim tone, with a good emphasis on musical line. The Lento movement comes over particularly well, with some lovely singing lines. In the final Vivace, the group provide some nice perky rhythms, but you would not mistake them for a Czech group.

It is difficult to listen to Barber's Quartet (his only essay in the medium) without your listening being distorted by the subsequent fame the second movement found, independent of the Quartet, as the Adagio for Strings. In fact all three movements seems to struggle with the quartet medium and I did wonder what the quartet would sound like played by string orchestra. The entire work is a consciously retro piece, seeming to exist in an entirely different 1936 to reality. The opening movement is a big, old fashioned Romantic statement. Here the group's technical control remains admirable, but their sound just needs to be fatter. Barber's big, bold, passionate music calls for more experience of life than these youngsters seem to be able to give just yet. But the adagio is giving a poignant and sensitive reading, Barber's long, elegant lines shining beautifully. The final Molto Allegro, is a short almost perfunctory movement. It is fascinating to hear the Adagio in its original context; but as a complete work I wasn't quite so sure.

Finally, we get a delightful bon bouche, Gershwin's Lullaby for String Quartet, dating from 1919 and giving a fresh and charming reading by the Serafin Quartet.

This is a fascinating disc, showing 3 American composers all trying to come to terms, in their different ways, with the very European medium of the quartet. And a European showing how the New World could cross fertilise with the old. This is a highly impressive debut from the Serafin Quartet.

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