This is a most welcome new entry to the Naxos “American Classics” series, especially since the recordings of all five Piston quartets by the Portland Quartet on the Northeastern label are out of print. Consequently, this is the only readily available recording of the Third and Fifth quartets. (There are three others of the First in print; unfortunately the pioneering Budapest Quartet recording is not among those.) I for one find this situation particularly frustrating, as Piston is my favorite American composer and I continue to be astounded at the persistent neglect of his extraordinarily well-crafted and engaging works.
All three quartets have a virtually identical layout of three movements, with outer Allegros bookending a central Adagio (or Lento in the case of the Third). The First Quartet from 1933, written in the composer’s early style before he found his neoclassical voice, is astringent and dissonant. The first movement opens with an aggressive, percussive motif that alternates with a sinuously weaving countersubject. This is followed by a subdued Adagio with muted strings and concludes with an energetic, dance-like finale reminiscent of Copland but considerably more spiky. The Third Quartet from 1947 reflects Piston’s fully mature style; some astringency is still present, but it is considerably tempered. The opening movement has a first subject similar to that of the first quartet, but the second subject is more hesitant, as if unsure where to go and stopping to ask for directions. A quiet, introspective slow movement is followed by a closing Allegro that closely follows the sonata form of the opening movement in thematic content. The Fifth Quartet from 1962 exemplifies Piston’s later compositional phase, when he began to experiment with 12-tone techniques. Despite that, the opening movement is in some ways the most lyrical of those presented here, though still displaying a trademark restless energy. The ruminative Adagio is followed by a dancing rondo finale with fugal elements, again reminiscent in mood of the First Quartet.
All four members of the Harlem Quartet are first-place laureates of the Sphinx Competition, which seeks to promote the careers of black and Latino string players. They are already an accomplished ensemble, and their performances here easily outclass those of the Portland group both technically and interpretively. The recorded sound is clear and not too closely miked. My one complaint is the inexcusably short timing of this disc, at 49:43; surely at least one more quartet could have been added. Still, let’s hope that a second disc will follow to complete the set; bravo to Naxos for choosing this group and advancing this project.