Lerdahl’s String Quartets Complex, Fascinating

Lerdahl Vol 3

LERDAHL: String Quartets Nos. 1-3 / Daedalus Quartet / Bridge 9352

It was with great anticipation that I approached Fred Lerdahl’s string quartets, having been simply bowled over by the two previous CDs I reviewed. I was glad to have heard them first, because it gave me some insights into his musical style and composition methods, whereas the opening of the first quartet, with its odd, stutter-stop approach, might have deterred me from listening further.

But I stayed with it because I respect Lerdahl so much as a composer, and eventually the music moved on, albeit still using what I would call musical fragments to move it forward. I also recognized Lerdahl’s personal use of what he calls “spiral form,” in which the variations expand in length, according to the booklet “each approximately three-halves the length of the previous one.” For those unfamiliar with its evolution, I should point out that although this quartet was written in 1978 for the Juilliard Quartet, who both toured with and recorded it, slight revisions were made to it 30 years later as Lerdahl’s quartet cycle neared its completion and this is the version performed here by Daedelus.

I cannot say enough good things about the Daedelus Quartet’s performances, and in fact I will go so far as to say that they are an improvement on Juilliard, whose rhythmic feel I always found to be rather stiff. By loosening up the rhythm, Daedelus brings out qualities in the music that make it “spring” better and catch the listener’s ear. You can compare it to Juilliard’s original recording on YouTube.

As the music progresses, it not only becomes exponentially longer in phrase-lengths but also exponentially more complex. To a certain degree this is a head game, but Lerdahl keeps one’s interest by introducing various swirling figures and, at one point, using the cello like a string bass, playing pizzicato figures. He also has the viola strum the strings like a guitar. The use of stutter-stop figures re-emerges in the latter part of the quartet, which ends quietly as if it has simply run out of steam.

The second quartet seems to pick up where the first left off. I see what Lerdahl is doing but am not sure that an audience would be able to pick up on it unless the first quartet were played before it. It’s so unusual for any composer to conceive string quartets as sequential works that build on one another that it takes some time to get used to the concept, but once one has adapted the listening experience is greatly enhanced by this. Interestingly, when Lerdahl originally finished this quartet in 1982 he thought that would be the end to the series, but after writing the third quartet in 2008 he revised this second quartet in 2010! Interestingly, I found the music of this second quartet, once one gets past the quixotic opening figures, both more accessible in terms of lyricism and more interesting in terms of its musical complexity than the first. A conscious decision? Probably so. The Daedelus Quartet first played the final version of this quartet when it was completed, so they are well familiar with it. Lerdahl’s variations here are not only more complex than before but often scored for two or more strings to play at the same time, thus using the quartet like a small string orchestra. He also has one of the strings (it sounds like the viola to me, but it could be one of the violins) play upward, swooping portamentos at one point. Eventually he introduces canons, which makes the music even more interesting.

The third quartet, dating from 2008 and written for Daedelus, is a bit different from the first two in style and content though clearly building on them. It begins with one of the violins playing a lyrical melody while the other strings swirl bitonally around it, then coalesces around the lyric tune before moving into the low range for both the cello and viola to play ominous figures. This is fully mature Lerdahl, and thus is in some ways the most creative work of the three. He lets his imagination run freely in his creation of this quartet, no longer content to just fill space but also to have some of the variations “double back” on themselves, creating a swirling mélange of sound that is utterly fascinating. The music shifts not only in tempo but rhythm frequently, sometimes using back beats to pull the music away from what the listener might expect. This is also a string quartet that can stand alone and be fully appreciated without necessarily hearing the other two, though it does complete the cycle started so long ago. Fluttering, high-pitched playing by the violins lead us into a surprisingly serene finale.

This is a fascinating disc but not one you can expect to listen to strictly for pleasure. Lerdahl’s music makes you think as you follow him, sit up and take notice.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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