Complete Dorian Recordings 1989-2009 / Ames Piano Quartet

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The Ames Piano Quartet, the resident chamber music ensemble at Iowa State University, holds a unique position in the chamber music field as one of the few piano quartets in the world. The combination of their lush string sound, blended with the orchestral quality of the piano, produces an exquisite and rare sonority. The Washington Post aptly described it as “one of the most heavenly combinations of instruments around.”

The ensemble has toured throughout the United States, including concerts in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, San Diego, and Washington D.C. Internationally they have performed in Canada, Mexico, France, Austria, and the Far East. Most recently the Quartet spent a week concertizing and teaching in Havana, Cuba, the first American chamber music group to perform there in over forty years.

Its members, all present ISU Music Department faculty, include Mahlon Darlington, violinist; George Work, cellist: (Lawrence Bulkhalter violist - discs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8) Jonathan Sturm, violist; and William David, pianist. Since its formation in 1976, the ensemble has recorded eight compact discs, including six for the Dorian Recording label, all of which have received national and international critical acclaim.

Fanfare called its CD of the Dvorak quartets, “one of the best chamber music recordings of the century.”

The Los Angeles Times wrote of a recent Ames Piano Quartet concert, “The four generated nearly limitless excitement … arching lyricism, poetic eloquence, and great accuracy.”

The French magazine La Cote des Arts commented, “The Ames [Piano] Quartet has a full vigorous sound, which deeply touches the soul.”

Reviews of some of the original recordings that make up this set:

Strauss, Widor Quartets
The masterpieces for piano quartet can be counted on the fingers of two hands: two by Mozart, one by Schumann, three by Brahms, two by DvorAk and two by Faure. This record offers two that are certainly not masterpieces, and are probably unknown even to most chamber music players, by composers who made their mark in very different spheres and whose names are not normally associated with chamber music at all. The earlier of them is the one by Richard Strauss, composed in 1884, when, at the age of 20, he was already a precocious and highly professional musician (with almost all the chamber music he composed already behind him). Widor's quartet dates from 1891, when he was in his late forties and already an eminent organist and pedagogue and the composer of a piano trio and quintet, a sonata for cello and piano and numerous shorter pieces—not to mention the first eight of his ten symphonies for organ.

The Strauss is heavily indebted to Brahms, notably in the two expansive, opulent outer movements, but in both the unmemorable quality of the thematic material is stretched too far (nearly 12 minutes, even without the exposition repeat, in the first movement, nearly ten in the fourth) despite the assurance of the actual craftsmanship. Some relief is provided by the nimble Scherzo and the rather sugary Andante (which are listed in the wrong order in the accompanying booklet). In 1885 the quartet was awarded, by a far from unanimous vote, a prize given by the Berlin Tonkiinstler Verein, and when it was played at Meiningen in January 1886 it made such a favourable impression on the audience (which included Strauss's employer, Georg II, Duke of Sachsen-Meiningen, to whom the score was later dedicated) that Strauss was agreeably surprised, "considering," as he wrote to Hans von Billow, "that it is by no means a pleasing or ingratiating work". The Widor is, to my ears, a more original and appealing piece, with a noble, impassioned first movement and an inventive finale, framing a tender, rather elegiac Adagio and a playful Vivace.

The performances, by the Ames Piano Quartet (formed in 1976, and a 'resident' ensemble at Iowa State University), are of outstanding quality, as is the recording by the American company, Dorian; it will not be their fault if the hope expressed in the booklet, "that this release will begin the work of restoring both pieces to the standard repertoire", is not realized.

-- R.G., Gramophone

Czech Piano Quartets
Great Czech piano quartet performances come from Iowa, Ames, IA, to be precise, home of Iowa State University where the Ames Piano Quartet is the chamber music ensemble-in-residence. The group, one of the few full-time piano quartets in the world, has already released several excellent discs on Dorian: the mandatory couplings of quartets by Dvorák, Fauré, and Brahms, plus several ingenious couplings like a disc joining quartets to quartets by Strauss and Widor. This 2002 disc has one of the most fascinating programs yet, uniting three quartets by three different Czech composers: Josef Suk's A minor Quartet, Op. 1; Vitezslav Novák's C minor Quartet, Op. 7; and Bohuslav Martinu's Quartet written in 1942.

All three are three-movement works in the fast-slow-fast pattern, all three last a bit more than 20 minutes, and all three are interesting examples of specific aspects their composer's style. Suk's A minor Quartet, his 1891 graduation piece from Dvorák's composition class, is a passionate but well-crafted piece of ardent romanticism. Novák's C minor Quartet started life as a four-movement student work in 1894, which the composer completely rewrote in 1903, discarding three of the movements and replacing them with the two published outer movements. Martinu's Quartet was written while the composer was living in exile in Jamaica, Long Island, a refugee from war-torn Europe and shows his mature mastery at its height.

The Ames Piano Quartet performs every work with amazing strength and total dedication. With a tight but flexible ensemble, strong but agile technique, and big, passionate tone, the Ames has what these works need to succeed. Its Suk is fervent and sincere, its Novák bold but controlled, and its Martinu driven but lyrical. Though some listeners may find the string's tone a bit edgy, others will find this only adds intensity to the performances. Recorded in Martha-Ellen Tye Recital Hall in 2002, Dorian's digital sound here is big, close, and direct. It should also be noted that this appears to be the premiere recording of Novák's quartet.

-- James Leonard, All Music Guide

Russian Piano Quartets
orian's pairing of these two piano quartets is particularly apt for a number of reasons, not least of which is the relative rarity of works in this genre by Russian composers. Paul Juon was a student of Sergei Taneyev (himself a student of Tchaikovsky), and it is Juon's Rhapsody that opens the program. A troubled, yearning theme in the cello's lower register sets the course for the entire piece, whose exceptionally rich chromaticism (stopping just short of Scriabin) keeps the music awash in a late-romantic delirium. The drama of the big finale is capped by the return of the cello's theme near the end. It's passionate, Wuthering Heights-type stuff, and the Ames Piano Quartet really pours on the sauce (but not so much that it overruns the plate).

Though written in the same year as Juon's Rhapsody (1906), Taneyev's piano quartet sounds like an earlier work due to its greater reliance on traditional Russian harmonic techniques. It's only slightly less emotionally heated, and the high strings' singing of the first movement theme brings to mind Chausson's Concert for violin, piano, and string quartet. The second movement features a catchy tune that would make a great rock n' roll anthem today. Taneyev's finale is even bigger that Juon's, though it also employs a cyclic device, in this case bringing that fetching second movement theme back for another rendition. As if two big chamber works were not enough, the disc is packed with Borodin's Polovtsian Dances in a mostly satisfying arrangement (you might miss the oboe) by Geoffrey Wilcken. Again, the Ames Piano Quartet plays with power, sensitivity, and brilliance. Dorian's recording places the piano well to the rear, but the live acoustic perfectly balances it with the strings.
--Victor Carr Jr.,

Review of complete set:

While piano trios abound and string quartets are a dime a dozen, what's rare are extant, long-standing piano quartets. Compared to the former two ensembles, repertoire for the latter is less abundant but no less significant. Piano quartets are often performed by piano trios who add a viola or string quartets that sit out a member and add a pianist. The result, however, is a temporary ensemble that lacks the benefits of performing long term with the same musicians. The Ames Piano Quartet proves that not only can a piano quartet exist as its own entity, but that it can thrive. Originally formed in 1976 at the University of Iowa and now faculty artists at Iowa State University, the Ames Piano Quartet has made a name for itself as skilled interpreters of the standard popular repertoire as well as champions of new and lesser known works. The present eight-disc collection showcases the recordings the group made on the Dorian label from 1989 through 2009. Listeners will enjoy stunning, thoughtful interpretations of warhorses of the repertoire like the three Brahms quartets, two from Dvorák, and quartets from Schumann, Fauré, and Strauss, as well as enlightening performances of rarely performed quartets by Suk, Martinu, and Widor. Taken from recordings made across two decades, there is an understandable variability in recorded sound quality from disc to disc, and the Ames does not have the most spotless intonation in the world. What it does have that many others lack is a clear, singular, unified vision of the score. Every articulation, every phrase, every dynamic, and every nuance is perfectly matched across the four members. Balance within the ensemble is also pleasantly fluid, shifting to allow the melody to come to the fore without obscuring the inner voices. Adding to its polished playing and far-reaching repertoire is a very informative and well-written set of liner notes that make this collection one well worth checking out.

-- Mike D. Brownell, All Music Guide

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: DSL-90908

  • UPC: 053479090829

  • Label: Dorian

  • Composer: Alexander Borodin, Antonín Dvořák, Bohuslav Martinů, Camille Saint-Saëns, Charles-Marie Widor, Ernest Chausson, Gabriel Fauré, Johannes Brahms, Josef Suk, Paul Juon, Richard Strauss, Robert Schumann, Sergei Taneyev, Vitezslav Novák

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Ames Piano Quartet