Emerson String Quartet: American Originals

If you’ve ever watched Platoon, you’ve heard Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Go to any classical music section of a record story, and you’ll find the Adagio on just about every Barber CD in the bin.

Barber, essentially, is a one-hit classical music wonder with the Adagio. He joins Johann Pachelbel (Canon in D) and Carl Orff (Carmina Burana).

The Adagio, however, is the second movement of Barber’s only string quartet, a work seldom recorded. Even Kronos Quartet opted to focus on the Adagio instead of the whole work on Winter Was Hard.

The only recording still in print to contain the entire quartet is Emerson String Quartet’s Grammy Award-winning album American Originals. (At least, it’s the only recording I could find.) The album focuses on two American composers traditionally seen as opposites in new music history: Barber and Charles Ives. This album, though, shows Ives and Barber had common ground at some point — perhaps not ideologically but maybe aesthetically.

The album starts with Ives’ String Quartet No. 1, "From the Salvation Army", a work of surprising tonality. The piece has such an amiability — based, as it is, on revival and gospel hymns — it’s tough to resolve the work’s playfulness with the thorny clusters and dissonances for which Ives would eventually be known.

Although mostly tonal, Ives does take some liberties with the work, throwing in a clashing note occasionally to give the sweet melodies a tart aftertaste. If anything, Ives’ first quartet is slightly more tame than the first movement of Barber’s String Quartet.

Barber never took up the atonal dogma espoused by the likes of Ives or Arnold Schoenberg, but that doesn’t mean his quartet is stuck in the previous century. Toward the end of the quick first movement, the individual parts collide into a hazy mess that uneasily resolves into its tonal theme. The first movement may be tonal for the most part, but it doesn’t posses the lyricism of the movement to follow. It also peters out toward the end, as if an idea wandered off to a tangent.

And that’s pretty much how the second movement, the Adagio for Strings, relates to its predecessor. The second movement has such a drastic contrast from the first, it seems a stretch to even consider the two as parts of a whole. Where the first movement was jumpy, the second is even-tempered. Where the first movement pushed and pulled, the second is steady.

Perhaps its the life the Adagio has taken on its own that makes the quartet seem tenable as a complete work. Regardless, the stark contrast between the two portions give the piece a patchwork feel. It’s still interesting to hear the Adagio in context of its source.

The album is rounded out by Ives’ String Quartet No. 2 and Scherzo: "Holding Your Own". Kronos Quartet recorded the latter work on White Man Sleeps, and the Emerson reading takes the tempo and coda with a bit more deliberation.

The second quartet, written a good 27 years after the first, finds Ives well into exercising his dissonant voice. It’s a mostly violent work with snatches of harmony peeking through the clouds of discord. Ives throws in a few recognizable quotes, but he obfuscates them in a way to seem like they’re struggling to be heard. At the end of the quartet, tonality and atonality battle it out in a way that inverts the lyricism of Barber’s Adagio. In a strange way, the two works find an affinity in these final measures.

The Emerson does a terrific job programming the works on the album. As divided as Ives and Barber were creatively, American Originals blurs the lines between their voices. Ives had his moments of lyricism, where Barber wasn’t entirely a melodicist.

At the same time, the Emerson does a tremendous job navigating the two extremes — Ives at his most brutal, Barber at his most tender. That’s a dexterity deserving of an award.