JEREMY BECK – Contemporary Works – String Quartets Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5

American composer Jeremy Beck, born in 1960, has written five string quartets. Let’s hope there are some more! 1, 2, 4 and 5 are all on this one CD. The quartets normally run around 15 minutes.

String Quartet No. 1 is a three movement work. It opens with a grave passage which soon moves into a forceful section. The rhythms are reasonably intense, but they soon mellow in to a passage of melodic stability. The angst returns for a section, but mellows into a pastoral mood. The violins lead this work, and do a fine job. There are some reflective passages which ease into the conclusion.

Movement two is an adagio. Long melodies define the opening of the movement. The cello marks out its space with a sombre line. The violins come over the top; they are plaintive and we soon have pure introspection. This mood is sustained for the bulk of the movement. A forceful passage breaks the mood. It quickly mellows and reverts back to introspection. The violins define this mood with call and response passages from the ensemble. It finishes with a whisper.

The third and final movement is marked presto. It opens with a conversational approach, with little emphasis on rhythm. The quartet are in a playful mood; melodies come and go, with all instruments contributing to the atmosphere. The playful mood is sustained for the duration of this charming piece.

String Quartet No. 2 is titled Fathers and Sons. The first movement, Fathers, is the longest piece on the disc, just over 12 minutes. It opens as a very beautiful adagio mood. Long drawn–out melodies eventually give way to a brief, playful section. The adagio returns in a magnificent passage. While not being an American, I believe I can garner a sense of the open plains and those eroded rock formations that are seen in the drier parts of the US. The music now comes to a halt. A robust section commences and there are key changes which I hadn’t noticed before. We now have all four members playing the same rhythmic motif. Then interplay is re-introduced leading to a rollicking passage. This is followed by another distinct change of mood. The tempo decreases and while starting gently, a new rhythmic motif soon appears. When the section is over, the composer returns to the cerebral adagio mood to complete the piece. This is a terrific ending, so delicate and captivating.

The second movement, Sons, opens with a folksy feeling. Music like this could only come out of America. I wouldn’t call it pastoral but it is music of the country. It’s not until it is halfway through its five minute length that the mood becomes gently abstract. It ends on a long faded note.

String Quartet No. 5 is in three movements. The first, opens with a duality. Two moods come and go. The first is sparse, the second is more lyrical. The latter eventually predominates and, for a while, the piece is built around this mood. Suddenly the cello appears, marking out a constant tempo. The other instruments drift freely in this space until the cello drops the rhythm and joins the conversation. Another fade takes it out.

The second movement opens very gracefully, with sparse instrumentation. The mood builds until all of the members are communicating freely. After a short pause, the violin comes in with a lament that continues to the completion of the piece. This is a most beautiful ending.

The final movement commences with a dialogue between the first violin and cello. It is over two minutes before all of the quartet are playing. The dialogue eventually extends to all four players and continues to the end with the obligatory swoop.

I’ve just listened to Quartet No. 4 and realised I should examine that as well. It sounded beautiful! This one is in four movements. The first movement is marked allegro furioso. Well, it isn’t. It’s a joyful romp for all concerned. Besides that, it quickly morphs into a lilting passage. The opening returns briefly and all’s well that ends well!

The second movement is a fine piece of melancholia. It only runs for two minutes. The first violin works at the top of its range for a time before being joined, gently, by the ensemble. All have a part to play here but the cello is especially prominent.

The third movement again opens with a beautiful peaceful feeling. Cello and violin dominate the opening. After a while, it becomes a little raucous but it doesn’t interrupt the mood which soon returns and holds its own until the conclusion.

Movement four opens with a shimmering feeling from the violins which is truly wonderful. As the movement develops, I’m beginning to feel that it seems to be Beck’s trademark to have violin and cello duets. They are marvellous together here as they fade out to the end.

There are several different ensembles on this disc so I won’t mention them. They all play beautifully. This CD, Quartets is available on Amazon US and UK at present but it’s starting to look a little scarce. My recommendation, which I don’t make very often, is buy it!

There are several different ensembles on the review CD so I won’t mention them – they all play beautifully. This CD, Quartets, on the Innova label, is available on Amazon US and UK at present but it’s starting to look a little scarce.

You can hear most of the quartets on YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: A must have.


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