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CD Review: Joan Tower String Quartets

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J. Tower, String Quartets 3-5 / Dumbarton Quintet, Daedalus Quartet, Miami String Quartet, B. McMillen

(released on April 8, 2016)
Naxos 8.559795 | 63'40"
Charles T. Downey, Joan Tower, String Quartets (Washington Post, July 1)
In 2009, Joan Tower presided over a somewhat disappointing performance of her own chamber music here in Washington, during the Kennedy Center’s CrossCurrents Festival. Two of the works on that program, the third string quartet (“Incandescent”) and the “Dumbarton Quintet,” have been recorded for the first time on a recent Naxos release, along with the American composer’s two most recent string quartets, No. 4 (“Angels”) and No. 5 (“White Water”), from 2008 and 2012, respectively.

Two prominent quartets have presented Tower’s music in the best light, beginning with the Miami String Quartet, which recorded the third and fourth quartets. The third quartet, commissioned for a new concert hall at Bard College, creates the sense of heat through many repeated-note motifs, small cells that are repeated and passed around the four instruments many times. The four players have communicated the intensity Tower wanted, including in three cadenzas for violin, viola and cello, but the composer’s hammering of the same motifs grows tiresome with repeated listening.

The fourth quartet, dedicated to the “angels” who helped Tower’s brother recover from a stroke, opens the same way, with an oscillating motif presented in alternate sections with more keening material in longer note values, often with glissandi. Tower has traced this focus on percussive, obsessive rhythm to her childhood in South America and her love of Stravinsky, and the use of brief rhythmically charged motifs is a tribute to one of her favorite composers, Beethoven. As the glissandi grow more and more frenetic, the piece comes suddenly to a close on a shining E major chord.

The Daedalus Quartet, formed in 2000, has recorded the fifth quartet, which also features glissandi as an important motivic element, evocative of flowing water, as Tower put it. In its original formation, the group won first prize at the Banff International String Quartet Competition, and since taking on two members a few years ago, it has continued to specialize in contemporary music. Tower’s music sounds more compelling, more animated, but also more balanced in this group’s hands, including in the “Dumbarton Quintet,” joined by Blair McMillen, who has succeeded Tower as pianist with her ensemble, the Da Capo Chamber Players. Commissioned by the Dumbarton Oaks Foundation in 2003, the work is an example of Tower’s focus on unison textures, which permeate the writing, including for piano alone. More extended harmonic structures are reminiscent of Messiaen, another of Tower’s favorite composers.

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