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Quincy Porter String Quartets Nos 1-4

Ives Quartet

Naxos 8.559305

There are two contrasting currents in American culture – Emersonian sophistication and Whitmanesque innocence. Whitman celebrated the newness of the USA as a country, and the closeness to nature allowed by the vastness of its territory. Emerson represents the intellectual confidence that Americans could take on their European ancestors and beat them at their own game.

Porter sits firmly in Emerson’s camp – these civilised works are a musical version of Henry James, expertly crafted and long-breathed. Porter was significant in the development of American musical life in the first part of the twentieth century, but his compositions have never had a large following.

Porter studied in Paris with D’Indy, and it shows. Quartet No 1 has a clear reminiscence of the Ravel Quartet, and its allusive, ironic manner, passionate but cool, clearly has a gallic flavour. If you imagine a musical equivalent of Pissaro or Sisley, you have a good impression of Porter’s style. The succeeding quartets deepen in intensity, No 3 is especially polished. These are works by an East Coast sophisticate, well written, well constructed. Porter was well-known for his interest in chromatic counterpoint; and this transfers especilly well to the quartet form.

The extremely proficient playing and the clear, silvery recording are of a piece with the music. The Ives quartet has impeccable ensemble and a sense of emotional identification with the music. Leader Musselmani cultivates an astringent sound which well suits this cerebral music – again you will recognise the affinity with Debussy, Ravel and Faure.

Why is Porter not better known? Did his post-impressionism seem even in the twenties and thirties to be retrograde? Or did his listeners not ‘get’ how deep his musical commitment was beneath the smooth melodic lines? An excellent discovery for me, and, I hope, for many others. Clean recording, nice presentation. Recommended.

Ying Chang