Update: Since this review was published in September 2020, Pacfica Quartet’s Contemporary Voices CD won the Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. Congratulations to Pacifica Quartet and everyone at Cedille Records!
While the pandemic has raged and in-person performances have all but disappeared, Cedille Records has continued to issue excellent recordings of classical music performed and/or written by Chicago artists. This article will review the most recent Cedille releases. Before going much further, however, I wish to express deep condolences to the founder of Cedille Records Jim Ginsburg, whose mother was Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We are all very saddened by the loss to him and to the country.
Dover Quartet, Beethoven Complete String Quartets, Volume 1, the Opus 18 Quartets
What does it take to pull me out of a pandemic malaise? The first of Cedille Records’ three releases of Ludwig van Beethoven’s entire cycle of string quartets. Over the years, Cedille has released very little of this composer’s work, preferring instead to shed light on rarely heard music, often by little known composers. Beethoven’s music in general and his quartets in particular certainly do not fit that bill. It is wonderful to hear a new recording of this fabulous music by the Dover Quartet, an ensemble eminently capable of meeting the many challenges this music poses.
Taken as a whole, Beethoven’s string quartets are the greatest musical achievement ever created. Within a single genre, they illustrate the revolutionary changes this composer pioneered throughout his life. These Op. 18 quartets, while not the best works from his early period, are full of interesting examples of the experiments he was trying—and they do contain several movements that are pure magic.
In these new recordings, Dover Quartet pulls out all the potential this music has to offer. Their performance is crisp and sharp throughout. In some places, they shed new light on those quartets that have never resonated with me. They avoid the pedantic feel that can plague the opening movement of Quartet No. 1 in F-major, and give a thoughtful approach to the finale’s introduction in no. 6 in B-flat major.
They give especially lovely renditions of the two quartets I have always liked the most in this opus. Quartet no. 2 in G-major has the closest feel to models put forward by Haydn and Mozart, and the opening theme has a passage that Beethoven reused in the Scherzo of the great c-sharp minor quartet, op. 131. The opening to Quartet no. 3 in D-major is rendered in a warm, wistful manner with a nice, light touch.
The performance that really opened my ears was of Quartet no. 4 in c-minor. Of all Beethoven’s many works in this dark and foreboding key, this has always been my least favorite. Dover’s compelling performance, especially of the opening movement, gave it a vitality I had rarely noticed.
Given what’s on display in this first of three releases, I can’t wait to hear the rest of the Dover Quartet’s Beethoven string quartet cycle.
Jorge Federico Osorio, The French Album
In The French Album, Chicago based, Mexican-born pianist Jorge Federico Osorio offers delightful performances of music by French composers through the ages. He does so in a way that overflows with detail, passion, and mood. The overall effect is marvelous.
There are many things to like about this release, especially the selection of pieces and order of performance. Gabriel Faure’s Pavane opens things in a way that typifies French music from the turn of the 20 th century: dreamy, pensive, moody. Osorio captures this perfectly.
Up next are several pieces by Claude Debussy. Taken from larger works, Osorio arranged them in a way that effectively created a whole new suite. After the Preludes Les collines d’Anacapri and La terasse des audience du claire de lune, out of nowhere comes Clare de Lune, taken out of its usual context within Suite Bergmasque. It is a nice juxtaposition to hear both of Debussy’s lunar pieces following one another. The rest of this new “suite” allows Osorio to shift feelings effortlessly.
Even more contrast emerges when Osorio turns to three short movements, part of a larger set, written 200 years earlier by French baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. From a completely different age, these pieces are a bit startling at first, but ultimately they fit right in. This is then followed by Emmanual Chabrier’s famous Habanera. Osorio’s approach allows this work to be heard alongside other Spanish inspired pieces by other French composers. Following more Debussy, Osorio closes with another Pavane, this one by Maurice Ravel, Pavane pour une infant defunte.
While this music has moments of loud excitement, by and large, quieter, shifting moods prevail. An excellent performance requires tons of finesse, and Osorio delivers big.
Eighth Blackbird, Singing in the Dead of Night
Eighth Blackbird, Chicago’s four-time Grammy Award winning ensemble, worked with composers and artistic directors from New York’s Bang on a Can to create Singing in the Dead of Night. Composers David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe wrote three works for this release. They bring out all kinds of moods, illustrating how, while most people are sleeping, lots of noisy activities still happen at night. Eighth Blackbird has plenty of opportunity to show off their multiple talents, and they abundantly do so on Singing in the Dead of Night.
David Lang’s contribution is these broken wings, a three-movement work interspersed by the pieces by Gordon and Wolfe on the CD. Its opening movement has a very frantic and frenetic feel that moves into a quieter middle movement patterned after the baroque passacaglia, where a basic theme is repeated several times during which other sounds are overlaid. It has the feel of a late night garbage collection, with Eighth Blackbird members not playing an instrument throwing things in the background.
Michael Gordon’s the light of the dark starts with a revved up cello making sounds reminiscent of a drag race. An accordion, piano, winds, and percussion are overlaid to give a festive feel. As the piece progresses, the music comes to sudden stops, where Eighth Blackbird shows excellent ensemble cohesion and musical spread.
Julia Wolfe’s singing in the dead of night offers the full panoply of nighttime quiet mixed up by activity. It opens with a drone of piano chords overlaid with slowing rising sounds on violin, accordion, and winds. The piano eventual gives way to slowly changing tonal structures with interesting overtones. It eventually breaks into energetic passages underpinned by snare drums and seemingly random sounds.
This CD was very much an acquired taste. On first hearing, it was not of interest, but further listens have allowed it to grow on me.
Jory Vinikour, L’UNIQUE, Harpsichord Music of François Couperin
In his latest Cedille Records release, Chicago harpsichordist Jory Vinikour shifts from modern music of 20th century to baroque music of the early 18th century. On offer in L’UNIQUE are three suites by French composer François Couperin, who called these pieces Ordre. In addition to the name, they differ from the other baroque suites in that they generally don’t represent dance movements. They still comprise several movements in the same key, sometimes switching between major and minor, but Couperin gave each movement descriptive titles, which frees him from certain constraints. The dance aspect of baroque suites is largely lost on modern ears, so it is nice to see more descriptive titles.
Vinikour gives this music a wonderful feel. Part of a challenge with the harpsichord, a plucked instrument, is that it can only be played at two volumes, yet Vinikour is able to vary his intensity to such an extent, it almost feels like his shifting dynamics. Of the three Ordres on L’UNIQUE, I prefer number 8. Couperin alternates each movement between G-major and g-minor, which lends itself to greater internal variety.
Pacifica Quartet, Contemporary Voices
In Contemporary Voices, Pacifica Quartet focuses on recently composed music by American composers—quite a shift from last year’s Souvenirs of Spain & Italy, which they recorded with guitarist Sharon Isbin. For one work on this release of largely atonal music, the Pacifica Quartet is joined by alto saxophonist Otis Murphy.
The disc opens with a compelling piece composed by Chicago-based Sulamit Ran. Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory – String Quartet No. 3 tells the story of German-Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum who died in the Holocaust in 1944. The tone is set with a very plaintive opening that gradually builds in intensity. In its four movements, this piece explores many sides of this tragedy, and Pacifica Quartet is able to pull out all of the twisted emotions.
A similar, if a somewhat more upbeat, feel is provided by the next work, Voices, a string quartet by Jennifer Higdon, who has risen to be one of America’s leading contemporary composers. She combines rambunctious energy in the “Blitz” and quieter emotions in “Soft Enlacing.” But the finale “Grace” offers a meditative feel. Pacifica Quartet beautifully offers the needed contrast.
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Quintet for Alto Saxophone and String Quartet offers something very different, and not just with added instrument. It’s reminiscent of slapstick from the silent movie era. In the faster second movement, one can picture Buster Keaton being chased between train cars. Otis Murphy on sax provides the perfect foil for the Pacifica Quartet. He shows the diversity of tones that the saxophone can produce, sometimes taking on more of a clarinet hue without the added brass effect.
All releases may be purchased via download or CD from Cedillerecords.org.