Ginastera: String Quartet No 1, 2 & 3 / Enso Quartet

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GINASTERA String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2; No. 3 1 Ens? Qrt; Lucy Shelton (sop) 1 NAXOS 8.570780 (73:31 Text and Translation)

More than most, Ginastera’s compositional output may be divided into three stylistic periods. His early works, using an impressionist language, were nationalistic in influence and drew heavily on Argentine dance rhythms. During his middle period, he expanded the scope of his tonality while remaining attached to his Hispanic roots, and in his late works he turned to contemporary avant-garde idioms. In my view, his best work comes from the middle period: the brilliant Harp Concerto and the succinct Variaciones concertantes. He was more individual than in his early impressionistic mode, and paradoxically more individual than he was to become after he adopted the standard stylistic traits of the 1960s and 1970s. His first two string quartets date from the beginning and end of that middle period.

Ginastera’s quartets demand a high level of virtuosity from the performers. Extreme dynamics, high harmonics, and syncopated rhythms requiring tight ensemble appear throughout. The First Quartet of 1948 is notable for its light-footed Scherzo ( vivacissimo ), its atmospheric slow movement ( calmo e poetico ), and a vigorous, stamping finale ( allegramente rustico ).

A similar wispy Scherzo movement occurs in the Second Quartet (1958, rev. 1968), but there it is deconstructed. In five movements, the Second Quartet contains an “extra” movement built from a series of cadenzas from each of the instruments ( libero e rapsodico ), before plunging into its own modernized version of a dance-inflected finale. The first movement presents a 12-tone theme, the first use of that technique in the composer’s work.

By the time of the Third Quartet, Ginastera had left his previous formal procedures behind. He introduced a soprano soloist, as did Schoenberg in his Second Quartet—a precedent of which the status-conscious Argentine composer was well aware. He set texts by Jiménez, Lorca, and Alberti, illuminating the soprano’s vocalizing and occasional spoken declamation with a series of ingenious string effects. The imagery and atmosphere of the poems dictate the musical form, so the task for the musicians is to reproduce specific moods, on top of the considerable technical challenges.

Previous recordings of all three quartets exist, though only one currently available brings them together on a single CD: the Cuarteto Latinoamericano (on Élan). I have not heard that disc, but I have the Latinoamericano recording of Quartet No. 1 in a mixed program from the same label (which may or may not be the same performance): they bring genuine excitement and tight ensemble to the piece, but are equally matched by the Ens? on this new release.

The original performers of the Third Quartet, Benita Valente and the Juilliard Quartet, recorded the work for the Bridge label in an interesting mixed recital that is well worth hearing for the couplings by Harbison and Wernick. Valente sings with great control and understanding, but the recording was made some 27 years after the event, by which time her voice had lost much of its bloom.

On the new disc, Lucy Shelton is a revelation: she brings pure tone and a wide range of vocal color to her interpretation. (Valente is more convincing in the relatively few spoken passages.) The U.S.-based Ens? Quartet plays with warmth and unanimity, meeting all the technical and interpretive hurdles with apparent ease. Naxos’s sound is excellent, the timing is generous, and a translation of the poetry is provided, making this CD the version of choice, regardless of price.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8570780

  • UPC: 747313078073

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Alberto Ginastera

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Enso Quartet