Audiophile Audition gives a rave Five-Star review of our Bartók & Kodály recording, leading with, “This is an essential recording, maybe the best ever of these important works.”
“If ever an album had ‘Grammy nominee’ written on its front cover, this is it. There have only been a handful of “complete” Bartok quartets recordings that one can call ‘legendary’ … but without doubt these new readings will ascend quickly to that exalted status. Astoundingly enough, I know of only one other recording of the two Kodaly quartets…and the inclusion of these two wonderful works more than doubles the value of this set.
“In this new recording the Alexander String Quartet, in residence since 1989 at the San Francisco State University, touches all the bases in an unqualified Grand Slam. With the precision of the old Juilliard recording, the unassailable projection and boldness of the Emerson, and the heartbreaking delicacy of the Takacs, they capture every memorable moment of these eight quartets with an authority and finesse virtually unmatched. And they do so in sound that is surely the best these quartets have ever gotten. …the radiant sonic beauty of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere, CA., are presented in a sound sketch of supreme warmth, clarity, and wide dynamic range. Absolutely essential for anyone remotely caring about this music.” —Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition
Read the full review on www.audaud.com!
MusicWeb International‘s Dominy Clements reviews our new Bartók & Kodály recording:
“Bartók’s string quartets are amongst the most superb and striking of the entire 20th century, and the ASQ does them proud in these performances. They nail the heightened folk-music intensity of a movement such as the finale of the String Quartet No. 3, and the sheer mass which opens the String Quartet No. 5 has an almost orchestral weight. Subtleties and those glorious nocturnal atmospheres which Bartók creates, extremes of colour and shading in the sound in all dynamics, the Alexander Quartet lives and breathes every aspect of this music as if their lives depended on it.
“Having lived with this package for some time I have to say it easily passes my ‘desert island’ test: in other words, if all my other versions were dumped onto a desert island and I was left on the mainland with only this one, I would be perfectly happy. The Alexander String Quartet has an eloquence and sense of natural communicativeness which seems to lift a layer of difficulty from these Bartók quartets … gaining a warmth of expression which welcomes you in to this world of magic. Yes, brutality and dissonance isn’t shied away from, but neither is it presented as some kind of avant-garde motivational essence for these quartets. The ASQ’s Bartók/Kodály set is very much one to acquire for long-term appreciation.” — Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
Read the full review on MusicWeb-International.com
The 2013-14 Saturday Series presented by San Francisco Performances kicks off this weekend as the Alexander String Quartet and Robert Greenberg once again present, “The String Quartet at a Time of War: Benjamin Britten and His Contemporaries.”
December 7, 2013
|Benjamin Britten and His Contemporaries
San Francisco Performances Inc.
St. John’s Presbyterian Church
Tel: (415) 398-6449
The Alexander String Quartet is happy and grateful to be spending this uniquely American holiday week with our respective family members. Of necessity we routinely spend a lot of time away from home and over the years, we have celebrated thanksgiving many times with just each other – Chinese restaurants in Germany or Indian restaurants in England come easily to mind but wherever we have happened to be touring on the day, even if performances were featured, certainly good food shared together has reliably been an important focus.
But as we gather once again and encouraged to consider how much we have to be thankful for, it is the seemingly countless individuals who come to the fore. There are simply so many special people who make our uniquely peripatetic lives and careers work and moreover, who make it meaningful and worthwhile. I’m thinking of the presenters, hosting families and friends, the generous supporters, managers, publicists, photographers, writers, annotators, even critics – yikes! – recording engineers and producers, backstage-techs, front-of-house managers, advisors, accountants, administrators –it’s a long list of folks who all contribute to make it work.
Of course we couldn’t do it without each other. Through thick and thin, for more than 32 years we’ve learnt to treasure and cherish the bond that ties us together in the making and sharing of extraordinary music. It’s a life’s work like none other but, how could we do it if not for our families who love and care for us? Our Quartet wives and kids have always supported and accepted that valuable family time must be sacrificed so that the Quartet can travel away from home, dividing our time to play for people they may never have met.
Like so many family businesses, it is the people who stay at home, toiling behind the scenes who help keep it all together and working so smoothly. Let’s be especially grateful to them at this Thanksgiving.
— Sandy Wilson
Video recorded at SFMusic Day 2013 courtesy of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Recording Services, Jason O’Connell and San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music:
The best thing about anniversaries is the opportunity for discovery they provide. When we decided to honor Benjamin Britten’s centennial year with a survey of his works for string quartet, I was already an admirer of the great English composer. In the early 80’s, as an extra at the Metropolitan Opera, I had the unforgettable experience of playing a run of Peter Grimes with John Vickers in the title role. I was absolutely stunned by the intensity and pathos of Britten’s music (not to mention the amazing Canadian tenor’s searing rendition!). However, it was nearly 30 years before the ASQ embarked on our centennial project for San Francisco Performances.
Another revelation!: The string quartets of BB are each magnificent works, qualified, in my estimation, to be included on the honor roll of the greatest works for the string quartet from the 20th century. I am sure these works will remain in the ASQ repertoire for years to come.
Of the composers who are the mainstays of the operatic repertoire, it was only Mozart who was equally brilliant as a composer of instrumental chamber music…I thought. Now I judge Britten to be in that Pantheonic company.
Happy 100th birthday to a man who is very much still alive!
Birthday wishes also to our great friend and collaborating artist, the eminent violist Toby Appel!
The Alexander String Quartet has just wrapped another wonderful week in New York, teaching twenty one classes at Baruch College in NYC. Reminiscing a little this afternoon during our performance in the College’s justly revered Engelman Recital Hall in the Baruch Performing Arts Center, we contemplated a few statistics:
As we begin our 28th year as the Aaron and Freda Silberman Ensemble in Residence at CUNY’s prestigious business school, we calculated that since 1986 we have played 55 dedicated one-hour Silberman Recital Series concerts; taught and/or participated in more than 1,000 classes ranging from Music in Civilization, Intro to Theater, Mathematics and Quantitative Reasoning, Film Music, Great Works of Literature, Harmony, Composition, Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, Business Models and many more subjects, and we have have reached and performed for more than 25,000 business students. This remains a visionary and pretty staggering gift from an alumnus on the G.I. Bill from the class of 1946 to his Alma Mater. Thank you Aaron Silberman and thanks to Freda and the entire Silberman Family too for your enduring gift and generous support.
Our residency activities continue tomorrow as we close our 2013 Baruch evening recital series featuring the complete string quartets of Benjamin Britten. There have been many observations approaching the centennial of Britten’s birth over the past two seasons by many of the world’s most elite presenters and organizations. All are celebrating one of Great Britain’s finest composers ever and quite possibly the world’s greatest and most prolific composers of opera in the English Language. Considering this latter fact, it is perhaps understandable that Britten’s three extraordinary mature string quartets are less well known. For our own part, the ASQ has relished learning and sharing these masterpieces (as well as some of B.B’s fine earlier quartets) with many audiences on the east and west coasts. We have come to know and love these works like almost no others. The three mature quartets, dating from 1941, 1945 and 1975 have revealed themselves to be spiritually exhilarating and devastatingly beautiful and somehow, profoundly moving.
As we considered how best to group and present these works in NYC, it occurred to us that combining select Shostakovich quartets alongside Britten made an insightful pairing. At the time we were planning this matchmaking, I had not yet read the fine article by Joshua Kosman which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, July 11, 2013. I quote from it in part:
“…. Britten’s music is as sophisticated in its construction, and as uncompromising in its integrity, as anything written during his lifetime or beyond. But it also takes a practical and humane stance toward its listeners, addressing them as thoughtful equals who are susceptible to being charmed, delighted and moved by art, not just awed by its technical complexities.
This was, in its way, a bold and important counterpoise to the modernist narrative that held sway through much of the 20th century. Like his friend and near-contemporary Shostakovich (both of them in turn guided by Mahler’s example), Britten made the case for the social role of music – as a medium for personal and political expression, for communal interaction, and for the creation of sheer beauty that can ravish the senses. It’s an achievement that seems all the more valuable and pressing today.”
From their very first meeting in London in 1959, it was thanks to the Russian master-cellist and their mutual friend Mstislav Rostropovich, that Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten formed and maintained a deep and enduring friendship and mutual admiration. From the ASQ’s perspective, it seemed clear that the two composers were each profoundly affected by their very different experiences of Second World War and this presented itself as a fitting starting point for our programming purposes.
Indeed Britten’s first quartet from 1941 was written in the US during his self-imposed, if soon to prove untenable exile from the UK as a lifelong pacifist and conscientious objector. He returned to Britain soon after, ultimately participating in the war effort from home. His 2nd quartet was composed in 1945, immediately after the war and was commissioned to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell. We know that Britten (who was a very fine pianist) and Yehudi Menuhin, his recital partner were reportedly emotionally shattered, having just returned from their recent tour of western European concentration camps and in particular, Bergen-Belsen. This 2nd quartet, sonically close to his opera Peter Grimes is a spiritually overwhelming work. Although the two composers had not yet met each other at this point, interposing the 2nd Shostakovich quartet from 1944 between the two Britten works seemed entirely natural. The chronological arrangement of the three works seemed not only tidy but each of these very different yet agonizingly beautiful and arresting meditations on the devastation of war seem fundamentally related one to another at their very core.
For the second program we decided to maintain the chronological presentation of the two composers’ virtually parallel final quartet masterpieces. Dmitri Shostakovich’s 15th from 1974 has six continuous movements, each marked Adagio and carrying the titles: Elegie; Serenade; Intermezzo; Nocturne; Funeral March and Epilogue. Benjamin Britten’s 3rd Quartet from 1975 is in five movements titled: Duets; Ostinato; Solo; Burlesque and, Recitative and Passacaglia (La Serenissima). This last quartet of Britten’s, as the reference to La Serenissima indicates, is closely related to his opera “Death in Venice” and there can be no doubt that his ill-health and certain death were on his mind, Indeed Britten and his life’s partner Peter Pears made a “last” trip to Venice, a destination very meaningful to them shortly before the heart surgery from which he never recovered. In the case of Shostakovich, failing rapidly from his 2nd and devastating heart attack, he was intimately aware of his fast approaching death. Although he was able to complete one final masterpiece in the form of his viola sonata, there is no doubt that the 15th would be his last string quartet.
It seems mildly alarming to us now that when we contemplated coordinating this closing concert for the New York Shostakovich/Britten survey in order to coincide with the actual centennial of Britten’s birth (November 23, 1913), we failed to anticipate that this would also fall on the commemoration the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As it has turned out, we trust that it will prove serendipitous and feel somehow “right.”
The program might seem a tad “deathly” but we believe that it will surely prove uplifting and memorable for its intensely contemplative music and the beautifully expressed, universal embrace and acceptance of life’s inevitably full cycle.