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Modern American String Quartets

Ned Rorem: Seven Viewpoints for String Quartet
Augusta Read Thomas: Eagle at Sunrise
Chen Yi: At the Kansas City Chinese New Year Concert
Jennifer Higdon: Southern Harmony
William Bolcom: Three Rags

The Ying Quartet (Thomas, Janet, Philip and David Ying)


Quartz QTZ2055


In a month when the cover of Gramophone magazine displays the headline ‘The Chinese,' it is apposite to find a CD for review by a quartet well-known for putting short pieces by its Chinese-American compatriot composers into its concerts, a feature it calls Musical Dim Sum . The Yings have a wider remit; they are active in commissioning and promoting new American string quartet music, and this disc (the second in a series) is one result. It is well-recorded, with attractive artwork.


The Yings (in fact four siblings, though no relation to me!) play with admirable technical precision and plenty of attack. The Rorem is the most substantial piece on this disc, although even that has separate movements of ‘Dim sum' length, the opening ‘viewpoint' ravishingly lyrical.


Only Chen Yi's piece is Chinese; it offers a far more satisfactory integration of Oriental and Occidental than –say- hybrid Chinese popular music. And therein the tension on this disc.


In traditional Chinese thought, the preservation and dissemination of culture is a great virtue, and a moral duty. The Yings make much of their laudable role not only in the encouragement of new music but also in what is fashionably called in Britain ‘outreach,' playing, as the booklet romantically says, in one-room schoolhouses and in farmhouses.


However, the Yings themselves inhabit both a sound-world and an intellectual context that seems glossy with the polish of civilisation. Their immaculate ensemble is experienced through an extremely smooth, refined sound, the pieces they have commissioned (or otherwise included) have a high seriousness that belie their folk or universalist conenctions. Bolcom's Rags have left the American saloon and would fit comfortably in a European salon, Higdon's deep South is singificantly more East Coast than Copland's Appalachians or Rodeo.


It's a powerful American tradition to look to Whitman and the frontier but, to me, this CD has been made under the sign of Wallace Stevens. It seems a patrician product in every way. I like it more for that, but whether the Yings themselves will be happy to be seen as an ornament of high culture rather than ambassadors for popularisation, is another matter…..


Ying Chang