Elena Ruehr: String Quartet N° 1: Four Pieces for String Quartet – String Quartet N° 2: Song of the Silkie – String Quartet N° 3 – String Quartet N° 4 – String Quartet N° 5: Bel Canto – String Quartet N° 6
Stephen Salters (baritone), Cypress String Quartet, Borromeo String Quartet
Recording: Skywalker Sound Scoring Stage, San Rafael, California and Futura Productions, Roslindale, Massachusetts (September and December 2007, May 2010, December 2015, May and August 2017) – 140’21
AVIE AV2379 – Booklet in English, German and French (Distributed by Naxos of America)
Discovering a composer’s style through six string quartets is an exciting process. Elena Ruehr’s six (to date) essays in the genre present a strong voice, with effective writing for the ensemble and a keen sense of drama. Ruehr incorporates many idioms into her style, but, as stated in the extensive booklet notes by Denise Von Glahn, “Ruehr is a devotee of twelve-tone techniques and minimalist methods; they go hand in hand.” This lends all six of the works surprising stylistic unity, and also a weighty seriousness of affect, even in faster, dance-like movements.
One gets the feeling of a late 20th-century Brahms, focused on intellectual sophistication and especially rigorous motivic development, rich textures, and imitative counterpoint. The connection from Brahms to Schoenberg to Ruehr is easy to trace, and the dash of rhythmic energy brought in via American minimalism added a unique dimension to Ruehr’s voice.
While the works don’t all bear programmatic subtitles, they all involve some sort of extra-musical program. The most apparent, by nature of genre, is the Second Quartet, based on the Orkney legend of the Silkie as reimagined by librettist Laura Harrington. Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach is immediately conjured, and Ruehr’s is a strong complement to that iconic work, even if the falsetto writing for the Silkie’s voice is a bit obvious. Stephen Salters has a warm, rich voice, and it is very present in the recording.
Direct literary inspiration is also found in the Fifth Quartet, where Ruehr creates a ten-movement musical novel based on Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A panoply of musical snippets finds its way into Ruehr’s characteristic textures, and the flashes of familiarity (and more memorable melodic lines) give a freshness to the piece. The movements are all relatively short, a further benefit that makes this perhaps the most engaging work in the collection.
The Third Quartet is described by its composer as “a character study [that] could be viewed as a series of portraits in some ancient life.” There is definitely allusion to pre-Baroque Western music, but at 25 minutes, the work is weighed down by its solemnity and striving for substance. The Fourth Quartet is modeled after Mozart’s Dissonance and the third of Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets, two works that are already monumental. Incorporating Beethoven’s tempo structure and some of Mozart’s harmonies as points of origin, the piece is dense but contains many beautiful passages, especially the second-movement Aria.
In the Sixth Quartet, a memorial piece for the Cypress Quartet’s late executive director, Ruehr explores the timbral properties of the ensemble in a more substantial and adventurous way. The four movements are more noticeably variegated, both in mood and length, including a touchingly forthright and memorable three-minute second movement (“For Todd”).
The Cypress String Quartet takes on five of the six quartets, and plays with great acuity. The Borromeo take the honors for the Second. In both cases, certain moments beg for more edge to the playing, but in lush passages, both quartets produce a gorgeous sound.
Recording and production values are high, but it is a bit surprising that Avie couldn’t find room in it’s already-bulky program booklet for the text to Song of the Silkie or translations of the artists’ bios, which are relegated to the back and only in English. In an extravagantly crowded field, it is difficult to predict the hold Ruehr’s sextet of quartets will have on the repertoire, but traversing them several times is indeed an enjoyable journey.
Marcus Karl Maroney