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Folkish Echoes for String Quartet

Shades of Romanyi Folklore Ulysses Quartet: Christina Bouey & Rhiannon Banerdt, violins. Colin Brooks, viola. Grace Ho, cello. Navona Records NV6567 Total Time: 60:14 Recording: (***/****) Performance: ****/****

The internationally-renown Ulysses Quartet’s new release brings together two significant quartets from the Classical and 20th-Century era that draw some veiled (and perhaps invented for the sake of an album title) influence from “Romanyi” music. This is the music of the nomadic peoples that traversed Europe, perhaps originally from India, but were perceived as Egyptians, hence their being called “gypsys”. Often we hear more Turkish influences in pieces of Beethoven’s time as the Ottoman Empire stood at the door of Europe. “Hungarian” folk music was another avenue of unique rhythms and musical gestures that enthralled composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries especially. Sandwiched between the two more known quartets is a world premiere recording of a work by Paul Frucht.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No 4 in c, Op. 18, no. 4 (1798-1801) shows some of the composer’s innovations while also having a bit of Haydn-esque Sturm und Drang that is a sort of undercurrent in his c-minor works. The opening primary theme has its own interesting rhythmic accents which lend it a bit of folkish flair. Beethoven replaces the typical slow movement with a fugal scherzo showing off his contrapuntal skill. Like the first, its underlying structure is a sonata form. A rather moodier menuetto also has some off-kilter sforzandos which make for a surprising aspect of the movement. The quartet is rounded off with an exciting rondo where this more “Hungarian” style comes more to the forefront.

“Intimate Letters” is the nickname attached to Leos Janacek’s second, and final quartet. Written in 1928, the poignant reference is to a long friendship the composer maintained with a young married woman across some 700 letters. One of its many endearing aspects is the prominent viola writing that is especially in the emotionally-tinged third movement. It is in this quartet where the group’s beautiful lyrical approaches have a chance to shine. The result is an engaging and moving performance.

In between these more familiar works, is Paul Frucht’s Rhapsody. The piece uses Ravel’s Tzigane as a musical jumping-off point but with combinations of jazz elements and idiomatic references from American popular music. The quartet brings out the denser harmonic aspects and the interaction across the ensemble also aids in adding to the excitement of the work. Familiarity with the Ravel might improve one’s appreciation of this piece which will feel a bit diffuse otherwise.

The Ulysses Quartet manages to capture the rhythmic excitement and energy of the Beethoven quite well, with some slight intonation issues in climaxes. The sound also feels a bit pinched and dry here. On one hand this allows for a bit more clarity in the rhythmic articulations. Most may come for the Beethoven, but it is in the Janacek where the group shines and is well worth the wait to an excellent release.


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