WALTER PISTON - String Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5

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WALTER PISTON - String Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5 - Harlem Quartet - 636943963029 - Naxos 8.559630

Naxos have been steadily adding new titles to their ongoing American Classics series for years now, to the point where they have collected together under one label, a comprehensive and expansive number of fine recordings of American music that would otherwise have been buried under the rubble of corporate neglect. This present recording is only one example of the quality and importance of this series.

It is difficult to understand why Walter Piston (1894-1976) is constantly overlooked these days by musicians, record labels and collectors alike. After all, he was a student of Paul Dukas and George Enescu, a teacher to Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter, had music commissioned by Mstislav Rostropovich, and received many prestigious awards.

One need only listen to the Adagio middle movement of his String Quartet No. 1 to appreciate the measure of this composer's creative skills. The way all four instruments are deeply engaged in this sombre and lyrical music is very well achieved. The last few bars are particularly finely written. The two outer movements that frame it, with their energetic interplay and rhythmic momentum, produce the desired contrast in moods, and make for a very solid first quartet. The String Quartet No. 3 from 1947 and the String Quartet No. 5 from 1962, bring to the fore the fact that Piston was always growing and adapting with the developments in music around him, even though some critics have stamped him as being very conservative. His Fifth Quartet actually makes use of the twelve-tone system, with fine results. All three are fine contributions to 20th century chamber music. Accessible and yet challenging, an unbeatable combination for a good listening experience.

This is the Harlem Quartet's debut recording. Melissa White (Violin), Ilmar Gavilan (Violin), Juan-Miguel Hernandez (Viola), and Desmond Neysmith (Cello), are all first-place winners of the SPHINX Competition for young Black and Latino musicians. An organization whose mandate is to make classical music accessible to minorities, presenting and promoting multi-culturalism, by emphasis on the talent and work of minority musicians and composers. This recording clearly demonstrates goodwill at work, and is an impressive first release by the Harlem Quartet.

Jean-Yves Duperron - September 2010