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