HAROLD SHAPERO – Serenade for String Quintet

American Modern composer Harold Samuel Shapero [1920–2013] wrote just one string quartet. In fact his complete chamber music for strings fits on to one CD, namely, a trio, a quartet and a quintet. I was alerted to Shapero by a friend who sent me a link (which no longer works) to a New York Times article Hear 7 of the Best Works From a Neglected Era of American Music. My thanks to that person.

I had intended to discuss the string quartet but was drawn into the quintet – its full name being Serenade in D (major) for String Quintet, by its stunning, Early Modern beauty. It has also been a while since I have discussed a quintet, and the first time the quintet is made up by the addition of a double bass. The CD liner notes state that it was composed in 1945 as a large scale orchestral work and arranged for string quintet in 1998 for practical reasons. The size of the ensemble required must have been vast.

The five-movement work opens with an adagio tempo as the double bass provides plodding notes to introduce sumptuous, lyrical violin melodies. The bass is a formidable presence in the ensemble, reaching deep texturally. The atmosphere is sparse, but beguiling before a pause brings in a remarkably active bass, followed by some spirited allegro melodies. There is nothing modern about this music but is does offer a fine sense of propulsion. A further change back to the lyrical is most welcome and the presence of the bass cannot be overstated – its role and strength are quite pervasive. Melodies of great charm unfold and a sense of ascending tonality is noticeable. Nearing the end, three voices create a dazzling passage, followed by a false ending with an extended flourish to conclude.

The next, short movement reveals the composer’s modernist leanings. A spirited dialogue leads into a pause and then further conversations. A drop in tempo has a rhythmic viola underpinning various violin and bass melodic lines – this section has a sense of urgency, together with abstraction. Another extended series of flourishes ends.

The third movement, marked larghetto, poco adagio features a stately, Classical opening, with sparse melodic violins and bass part. Now the bass walks and pizzicato is heard as first one, then two violins move into a sometimes tender, sometimes animated manner. This is unique music, especially for its time. I believe that this particular instrumentation has a fascinating sound, occasionally bordering on the orchestral. Some more plodding bass now builds a rhythmic, constantly developing harmonic passage. A change back into an abstract sound is most rewarding, the violins again expressing vague melodies, leading into a fascinating soundscape where melodies intersect to great effect. This is a particularly long movement, but the composer is certainly up for the challenge as he develops an array of sounds, ranging from the stately, evoking Beethoven to the lyrical, which sounds more contemporary. A further pause delivers a lamenting passage where both violins expound an arresting short section that leads to a sustained two-note melody, finishing with a lone bass note.

The next movement is set definitely in 1945 and eccentric violins dominate the sound. The modern feeling dissipates and a sense of the romantic is heard. Shapero changes moods and reinvents ideas constantly. Abstraction follows lamenting follows vigour as the intensity diminishes leaving a final, sparse drone-based passage which signals the end.

The final movement has a skittish feeling before moving into a rhythmic section, only to produce a degree of chaos, which is soon resolved. A rapidly pulsing bass dominates for a time, but the mood quickly changes back into a chaotic phase – this time more extended. A descending melodic motif is passed around the ensemble until the violins again break free and lead the music into a respite, probably for a final time. The conclusion is a now familiar, extended series of flourishes.

Two things strike me about this work. The first is that the music seems to draw inspiration from several eras and styles. The other is the profound influence the double bass has on the ensemble sound. Often it seems to be all about two violins and the bass. It does lead to some very interesting textures with the cello and viola being freed to undertake fascinating statements of their own.

Just a word on the string quartet. It sounds rather modern for 1941 and contains two slow movements, which aroused my attention. Maybe for another time.

The review CD is apparently untitled so I am going to go with how Amazon US specifies it, Shapero: Chamber Music, performed by the Lydian String Quartet, on the New World Records label. It is also available on Amazon UK.

This disc is on Spotify, and all of the music can be heard on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: A Modern work that frequently looks back to earlier times.


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