George Perle (1915-2009) received his early musical education at DePaul University, Chicago, and got a doctorate in musicology from New York University. He'd then go on to become a highly respected composer, teacher and author. The title of his book Twelve-Tone Tonality (1977, 1996) best describes his later musical style, which might be generalized as a dodecaphonic wolf in tonal clothing.
He left us ten works for string quartet, and the four on this new Bridge release span fifty years of his creative career. Taken chronologically the ones here are revealing snapshots of his stylistic evolution, beginning with the Molto Adagio of 1938 [T-8]. These are the only recordings of them currently on disc.
Ghosts of Beethoven (1770-1827), Bartók (1881-1945) and Berg (1885-1935) haunt this searching twelve-minute piece, which is built from a couple of brief opening motifs. While the music is highly chromatic, Perle manages through repetition, the use of amiable intervals and clever rhythmic devices to preserve a sense of tonality.
He numbered his next effort in the genre as his first quartet, but never got beyond writing its opening seventeen measures. However, the year 1942 saw the completion of an entirely new one that he'd call his second, after which seven more, numbered three through nine, would follow.
In the key of D minor, it's a throwback to conventional tonality, and something he'd later consider a stylistic excursion. With two slow outer movements surrounding a brief faster one, its layout recalls Bartók's second quartet (1915-7), which Perle acknowledged had already been a strong influence on the Molto Adagio mentioned above.
The initial moderato [T-1] begins with two groups of thematic subjects, which are characterized by scalic motifs, and repeated triplets. They're subjected to an ingenious combination development and recapitulation utilizing canons as well as inversions to create a continually changing texture. While this is highly chromatic music, Perle keeps it tonally anchored with cello pedal points.
Having no markings, the second movement [T-2] is a bizarre waltz with an imploring melody [00:00] that hovers around a related folkish tune [00:47]. Tonality is preserved through repetition, but becomes more illusive with the opening of the final movement [T-3], which is also unmarked. This is for the most part a dark mournful offering that as Malcolm MacDonald's (see 14 May 2012) informative album notes point out, augurs Shostakovich's (1906-1975) late quartets.
There's one rapturous spot [03:45] with a pizzicato accompaniment [04:08] reminiscent of moments in Schoenberg's (1874-1951) Transfigured Night (1899, arranged for string orchestra 1917-43) where it would seem a beam of moonlight breaks through. But nocturnal gloom soon returns [05:22], and the quartet ends in tonal despair on a thrice repeated unison D [10:03].
Moving right along we get a 1967 revised version of the fifth quartet originally completed in 1960. Perle considered it among the best of his early "12-tone tonal" (12TT) works, and despite its dodecaphonic roots, it will have great appeal for those put off by the emotionless, intellectualized creations of hardcore serialists.
In three movements having only metronome markings, the first [T-4] opens with a bluesy slithering idea [00:00]. An increasingly agitated elaboration follows, transitioning into a nervous thematic episode with pinprick notes in the high registers [01:49]. The involved development [03:56] and recapitulation [05:28] that come next don't readily lend themselves to a succinct written analysis. Suffice it to say they turn the movement into a tonally tinted, lyrical listening experience.
Then we get a vibrant scherzo [T-5] that juxtaposes a skittish idea [00:02] with a swaying riff [00:09], and ends in midair with the latter trying to reassert itself. This movement sets the mood for the whimsical third [T-6], which has an antic disposition. Cantankerous one minute and contemplative the next, there are some interesting effects that include sprinklings of pizzicato, a stalking rhythmic motif [02:54, 04:53], and an unearthly muted descending passage [05:09] that ushers in the work's restrained conclusion.
The eighth quartet of 1987-8, which Perle called Windows of Order, also falls into the 12TT category (see above). The title reflects the composer's use of various compositional devices designed to give the music a diatonic feel. In one unmarked twenty-minute movement [T-7], the work falls into five spans. These are built on four proportionally related tempi, and spiced with contrapuntal devices that include imitation as well as fugato.
All four are introduced in the first span, and have metronome markings based on a quarter note. Tempo 1 (T1) [00:00] is set at 68 beats per minute, tempo 2 (T2) [~ 00:34] at 51, temp 3 (T3) [~ 00:54] at 153, and tempo 4 (T4) [~ 01:19] at 102, putting them in a ratio of 1.33 to 1 to 3 to 2.
But enough of this technical mumbo jumbo! And in hopes of better conveying the music’s emotional impact, we’ll make up an underlying program.
T1 and T4, which would seem to have coy feminine and assertive masculine thematic associations respectively, are the main characters in the second span [01:49]. Here they engage in an amicable developmental dialogue with T1 having the last word.
The third span [05:40] amounts to a slow movement featuring T1 again. But here T4 is replaced by T2, which might be considered a secret admirer with furtive thematic traits. Yearning and amorous, this is the quartet's emotional center of gravity. It’s the opposite of the fourth section [11:54], which is a scherzoesque episode providing some comic relief.
This is based entirely on T3, which is associated with a mercurial melody that undergoes a central development [13:00]. T3 then resurfaces [13:50] briefly, and falls exhausted, ending this section.
A short pause follows, and then we get the concluding fifth span [14:29] where T1 and T4 make a return appearance. But the relationship has soured, and the mood this time around is combative. The quartet concludes with T4 stomping off, leaving T1 dangling her bonnet to the subdued motif heard in the quartet's opening measures. This brings what must be regarded as a modern chamber masterpiece full circle.
The Daedalus Quartet makes a welcome return to these pages (see 10 March 2011) with this stunning string of "Perles". Technically accomplished in every way, their attention to dynamics and rhythmic phrasing, particularly in Windows of Order, guarantees you a disc with some unforgettable contemporary chamber music. The composer couldn't be better served!
Made on several occasions during June and September of 2012 in an unidentified venue of the DiMenna Center, New York City, the recordings project a broad soundstage in warm ideally reverberant surroundings. While the spacing between the instruments is generous, they remain perfectly balanced in respect to one another.
The string sound is bright and pleasing. However, to borrow a line from a Coen Brothers' script, "What's the rumpus?", as there are a series of low frequency murmurs throughout the disc. Maybe someone was moving pianos nearby, and then there's that 24/7 New York City traffic! But it seems more likely the performers were seated on one of those “tympanic” platforms that amplifies any leg movements. Lastly, there’s a strange pop in Molto Adagio [T-8, at 05:41].