Summary for the Busy Executive: Not bad, but it could have been great.
Pity the poor bass fiddle player who loves chamber music. Works that feature this instrument not only run rare on the ground, but with few exceptions, don't rise anywhere near the level of a repertory string quartet. One such player, Barry Lieberman, decided to do something about this with the idea of turning string quartets and other chamber works into music for string chamber ensemble – a group large enough to accommodate the double bass without losing too much of the intimacy of the string quartet.
It's a simple concept, but one fraught with practical perils. For example, not every string quartet translates well into the bigger medium. Furthermore, you can't have the bass merely doubling the cello at the octave below. In short, you don't want to betray the ensemble values of the score. One must indeed consider taste.
Lieberman hooked up with Maria Larionoff and together they formed the American String Project, a conductorless, somewhat ad hoc string orchestra made up of first-rate string players from all over. If their slogan "A virtuoso in every chair" rings with a bit of hype, it's not that far from the mark. You get the impression that any one of these players could step into the star soloist position and acquit themselves creditably. Somehow, Lieberman and Larionoff decide on a program. Usually, Lieberman writes the arrangements. They send out invitations to players, and the group meets for a brief period to rehearse and perform. Each piece on the program is assigned a "leader," a person responsible for rehearsal who acts as a traffic cop for collaborative suggestions from the group as well as for performance.
Those of us used to "the conductor's vision" of a piece – after, all we habitually speak of "Furtwängler's Beethoven" – may feel a bit uneasy about a collective effort, that we might get "an elephant designed by committee," rather than a convincing view of the piece. On the evidence of this CD, I'd say sometimes yes, sometimes no. The Beethoven is quite fine. Because of the extra weight, it becomes a little symphony, which suits it, incidentally, very well. It set up great expectations. You would think the same of the Shostakovich. After all, others of his string quartets have found extra life in chamber-ensemble arrangements – Barshai's rendering of the Eighth into a chamber symphony, for example. However, this performance of the Twelfth lacks the intensity of most string quartet groups I've heard. The second movement especially, a killer twenty minutes long, never really goes anywhere, and it's the heart of the quartet. If this movement doesn't come off, a decent first movement won't save the performance. I don't think this the fault of the arrangement, which strikes me as ingenious, or the actual playing, but of the interpretation, which fails to find points of arrival and fallback. It's like watching an endless stream of pasta come out of an extruder.
The group relaxes more in the Sarasate and have a good time in works designed with fun as a goal. Stephanie Chase – arranger, leader, and primary soloist – plays the bejabbers out of Zigeunerweisen, earning a well-deserved (and unsexing) "Bravo!" at the end from an audience member who just couldn't help himself.
In short, this is a mixed bag of a CD. The sound is quite good in the Beethoven and the Shostakovich, a little muddier in the Sarasate.
Copyright © 2009, Steve Schwartz