PORTER: String Quartets 1-4.
Ives Quartet
Naxos 8.559305 (B) (DDD) TT: 65:30

From the Thirties through the Fifties, William Quincy Porter (known professionally as Quincy Porter) enjoyed the esteem of his composing colleagues, particularly for his chamber music. He studied with, among others, Vincent d'Indy and Ernest Bloch, and like other members of his generation—Randall Thompson and Roger Sessions (another Bloch pupil), for example—became instrumental in shaping the American university theory and composition curriculum. After several prestigious appointments, he wound up at Yale and won the Pulitzer in 1954. However, he never had a real hit, unlike Copland, Bernstein, Schuman, Harris, or even Piston, and since his death in 1966, few orchestras and performers have taken him up. Of the quartets on this CD, only the third is published. The Ives had to get manuscript copies from the Yale library for the other three. These quartets are close to 80 years old.

As a teen, I heard his eighth string quartet (of nine), an oboe quintet (subtitled "Elegiac"), and his second violin sonata, none of which aroused my curiosity to explore further. This changed, however, when I heard his magnificent New England Episodes for orchestra, on the B side of an LP featuring the Robert Ward piano concerto, the piece for which I had actually bought the album. I've since heard other works and now consider him uneven, if not in craft then in inspiration. Some of these things are blander than tapioca. Others convince you that you've heard a major voice.

The first string quartet, from 1923, definitely falls into the latter category. It strongly recalls Bloch, although Bloch had written only the first of his own quartets. I have no idea whether Bloch had any direct input on the quartet, although I do know that Porter began his studies with the older composer somewhere around this time. It takes from the "abstract" rather than from the "Jewish" side of Bloch's output, and as well as Bloch himself – a rare thing among Bloch's followers. Nevertheless, you won't catch the anger of prophets here. Still, you feel the depths of the thing, especially the gorgeous slow movement. In all these quartets, Porter raises his game for the slow movements. Not one falls short of wonderful. Richard Whitehouse, who provided the liner notes, sees the influence of the Bartók second quartet on Porter's own second. If so, it has flown past my ears. To me, Porter doesn't have that strong an artistic profile. That is, I doubt you would guess the composer of the latter three quartets, even if you knew other Porter works. However, I do note a texture leaner and meaner than that of the first quartet. This tendency becomes sharper in the third and fourth quartets. The fourth, with the exception of, again, the slow movement, strikes me as more dutiful than inspired. Nevertheless, the string writing and the concern for equal interest among the parts (Porter played the viola and may have wanted something meaty for the player) show that the regard for Porter wasn't misplaced. The quartets may not proclaim their composer as loudly as the Shostakoviches do, but they do come across as earned, elevated discourse.

The Ives Quartet have absorbed these pieces into their bones. They slough off nothing. Their rhythm is excitingly precise, and their ensemble is as clear as Vouvray, thus allowing you to hear Porter's elegant counterpoint. I look forward to more releases from these folks.

S.G.S. (February 2008)