The Stuyvesant String Quartet Bridge

Déjà Review: this review was first published in January 2004 and the recording is still available. 

The Stuyvesant String Quartet 
Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973)
String Quartet No. 1 Rispetti e Strambotti (1920)
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
String Quartet in G minor Op. 10 (1893)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
String Quartet in F major (1902-03)
Alan Shulman (1915-2002)
Rendezvous for Clarinet and String Quartet (1946)
Benny Goodman (clarinet)
rec. 1946-51
Bridge 9137 [79]

It’s good to see the Stuyvesant Quartet’s recordings being re-released. Parnassus has a splendid disc available, which has been reviewed here, and now Bridge adds another with an Impressionist theme. The recital includes the Debussy and Ravel Quartets, both recorded in 1951, and add the intriguing Malipiero that was taped the previous year. The Shulman with Benny Goodman comes from the première performance given in a 1946 broadcast on WEAF.

Malipiero’s First Quartet is a rather beautiful if diffuse work dedicated to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and written in 1920 (an earlier work in the same form was unpublished). Opening with a solo violin on open strings this ritornello figure recurs at various points and acts as both partition point and motor for more colouristic and textual themes. There’s no real development as such, the quartet flourishing instead on a series of motives and moods, full of folk fanfare, in unison or singly. There is a gently lapping episode for viola over soft pizzicato strings, which contrasts with the earlier bustling drama. The idiom is Debussian with admixtures of folk texture, each panel reflecting one or other of these influences, including drone effects and nocturnal impressionism The quartet ends in a cadence of sheer baroque beauty, asserting the established verities and drawing attention to one of the most enduring loves of his own musical life, Italian vocal music of that period.

Alan Shulman, the cellist of the quartet, who died in 2002, was also a composer. Whilst working on his Cello Concerto his brother Sylvan phoned to say that Benny Goodman wanted to perform a movement from Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet on his NBC radio show. Instead Shulman composed Rendezvous, a five-minute piece Goodman performed just the once (according to Shulman he was nervous about it) though it was taken up and recorded by Artie Shaw. The work starts as an intensely evocative piece of Debussyian extraction for quartet and when the clarinet joins in we get a jazz vamp. Good fun.

The Ravel and Debussy Quartets were recorded in the Village Lutheran Church in Bronxville, New York. It’s the acoustic that rather does for the latter though the former is slightly better in that respect. A hazy distance settles over the recording, blunting incision and giving the playing a slightly heavier feel than is ideal. They certainly lack the wristy flexibility and lightness of the Franco-Belgian Pro Arte Quartet and their aerated fleetness. The recording is very unhelpful in the Scherzo, which can’t really take off as a result, and the slow movement, which is sensitively shaped but lacks the sweetness amidst the delicacy of the finest recordings. Similarly the Ravel, though in better sound, is never quite diaphanous enough and the flexibilities of tonal and metric matters such are cultivated by the Pro Arte and Bouillon Quartets are never really replicated by the Stuyvesant.

Nevertheless this is a worthy salute to a fine quartet. The booklet notes are extensive and very generous, the transfers taken from LPs or tapes since the original masters are missing (other than the Shulman which was made from a copy of the broadcast transcription disc). All this has been done with care and concern.

Jonathan Woolf

Stuyvesant String Quartet: Sylvan Shulman and Bernard Robbins (violins), Ralph Hersh (viola) and Alan Shulman (cello)

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