Over the past 30 years artists in all disciplines have felt the need to question (an in many cases outright reject) long-held assumptions about originality and their own relationships to the past. In the field of music (and I don’t mean just symphonic and chamber music) this has led to a wholesale reevaluation of what is means to compose. A new CD on the British label Metier by the Kreutzer Quartet offers a marvellous opportunity to hear deeply committed new performances of two works that were created in direct response to these issues, George Rochberg’s Third String Quartet and Elliott Schwartz’s Bellagio Variations.
The Rochberg Third Quartet is a vast work lasting just over three-quarters of an hour. In the course of its five movements the performers are presented with an almost schizoid range of musical styles. From slashing, angular expressionism to grotesque Bartokian marches to late-romantic lyricism, the only constant is that every phrase must be saturated with the highest possible degree of expressive emphasis. There is hardly a note in the score that does not possess one or more stress markings. The members of the Kreutzer Quartet handle these challenges with breathtaking sensitivity. Passages marked violente, furioso and wild! are played with terrific force without ever sounding ugly. The execution of the opening bars of the third movement (Variations) is an absolute gem. Marked Adagio sereno, molto espressivo e tranquillo; pure, this passage has violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved unfurling a stratospherically high, sustained melody over a warm-hued, closely spaced chordal accompaniment. In high, soft, densely scored passages like this one the quartet’s tone never threatens to disintegrate and their pitch is utterly secure.
Elliott Schwartz’s Bellagio Variations (1980) is also a work that questions assumptions about style, history and originality, though in a musical idiom that values conciseness, brevity and a vaguely sinister sense of playfulness over the epic and the visionary. Where Rochberg keeps his forays into diverse styles and periods confined to self-contained movements, Schwartz (like Charles Ives before him) lets everything run together. The abundance of material from which Schwartz fashions his theme reveals his essentially eclectic nature. These include a motive from Mahler’s First Symphony, a snippet of the Bowdoin College flight song, a quote from a work by his teacher Otto Luening, a reworking of a flute Sonatina that he himself composed as a student and a tiny fragment from a piece by Ross Lee Finney. If Rochberg’s Third Quartet is a Joseph Cornell box blown up to the size of a house, Schwartz’s Bellagio Variations might be thought of as eight Rauschenberg ‘combines’ shrunk down to the size of postcards.
Like much of Schwartz’s work, the Bellagio Variations can be experienced on several levels. Indeed, one could almost think of the piece as a set of variations on the idea of variations. The composer subverts (perhaps varies is a better word) many of the signposts a listener might normally expect to find guiding him or her through a work cast in this form. This is not to say that the piece lacks surface coherence. Four of the eight variations (III, V, VI and VIII) feature a different member of the quartet in a solo role. The remaining four focus on a range of ensemble playing techniques. This creates the feeling of a sequence of dramatic scenes contrasted with solo arias. Pauses between variations III and IV and VII and VIII give the piece the feeling of being cast in three large movements. With committed performers, this music can take on a dark, kaleidoscopic sparkle all its own. In the Kreutzer’s hands the Bellagio Variations receive a wonderfully nuanced performance, by turns (and sometimes all at once) taut, luxurious, witty and ferocious, entirely befitting the wilfully disorienting, dream-like nature of the music.