DAVID DIAMOND – A Youthful First Quartet (and some)

David Diamond [1915-2005] is an American composer who wrote eleven symphonies and eleven string quartets. The quartets were written between 1940 and the early 2000s.

SQ No. 1 is in one movement with three tempo markings – adagio – allegroandante; so basically it’s going to be pretty slow – it doesn’t turn out that way. The opening notes remind me of Mahler, it just sounds very symphonic. It’s also a little like Charles Ives – very American. The stately opening moves through a pastoral section. The mood is broken by some jagged edges and a swirling epiphany of notes. The music takes on a serious tone in the allegro section. There is also plenty of forward movement here. It finally settles as the Mahler-like mood returns. The tempo disappears and we are back in the opening mood. There is a distinct pause in the proceedings, as if needed to gather one’s thoughts. This whole middle section is all about moving towards the final andante. It doesn’t get more pastoral than this; this is an early American soundscape! The beauty of this passage is remarkable. And then, the spirit lifts; the music is on the move again. The rural sound remains but it is on a more positive note. Flurries are everywhere and the energy is palpable. As we move toward the end, the rhythm dissipates but returns for one final closing flourish. A fine first string quartet.

SQ No. 5 is also on this CD but I won’t be discussing it. It was written in 1960. To my ears, it sounds more Modern than No. 6, quite angry at times.

SQ No. 6 is in two movements and was written in 1962. The first movement shows a lot of progression from the first quartet. It begins with a slow, atonal lament. This is the music for which I paid my money! It is mysterious and won’t settle. The agitation is not intense but you can feel it. Slowly, a period of chaos emerges, all the while retaining the low intensity. Finally the volume comes up and the mood proceeds with some angular, slightly aggressive passages. It relents and moves back into abstraction. This is a very formless movement; it wanders freely through several moods.

The opening of the second movement, marked adagio, is reminiscent of Bela Bartok’s first string quartet with its sparse melodies. It quickly, and quietly, moves into a tempo. After a time, the mood dissipates leaving the melody to wander freely around some long forgotten scene. The movement continues to alternate between slow, atonal passages and jumpy melodic sections. One of these sections is pure pizzicato. As it moves inexorably to its conclusion, the passages continue to alter in texture and approach.

Wikipedia refer to Diamond as ‘a tonal, sometimes modal composer whose work was overtaken by the dominance of the atonal movement’. In my opinion, his quartets contain large slabs of atonality and dissonance.I believe it was his lack of resorting to the use of modern effects such as aggression and violence that lead to his decline in popularity. His work was always kept in check, technically and emotionally.

The review CD is Volume 3 of a set of Diamond’s Complete Quartets on the Albany Records label, performed by the Potomac String Quartet. The set is freely available on Amazon US.

Two volumes of the set are on my Spotify and many of Diamond’s quartets are also available on YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Satisfying, mostly measured works.


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