I wanted to review the Verona Quartet as I love discovering new groups. I was attracted to their first CD, "Diffusion", specifically because it appears on the great, Cleveland-based label, Azica. I have experienced excellent recorded sound in the past from this label, and notable releases have included the likes of the Dover and Escher Quartets.
While the Verona doesn't quite match the exalted heights of those other two American string quartets (and honestly, no other group does), they are awfully good. And they bring their own gifts of musicianship and individuality to delight listeners.
I love the program (and cover art) on the Azica disc, which includes two pieces less familiar to me, the 2nd Quartets of Janacek and Szymanowski, combined with the ubiquitous one by Ravel. It was with the Ravel I began listening, as I had just heard (and reviewed here on the blog) the recording of it by the fabulous Quatuor Van Kuijk on Alpha Classics. The Verona is rather more "traditional" in their approach - beautifully played and slightly less dynamic and eye-opening than the French group. However, they display a delectable variety of tonal color and musical subtleties which I greatly enjoyed. They possess a relaxed, glowing blend, permeated with a beguiling expressiveness which benefits this music perfectly. For instance, there is a seductive tenderness and freedom of tempo in the first movement which is captivating. Yet they characterize Ravel's variety of moods without being quite so melodramatic about it. The finale is exciting, but lighter, less muscular and definitely not as hair-raising as the Van Kuijk (though with an identical timing of 4'51).
They are perhaps even more impressive in the other two Quartets. Their reading of the Szymanowski is a revelation. Less wayward, with more purpose and direction than I'm used to hearing, I discovered the piece anew. Not only from the overall scope and clarified compositional structure, but their silky blend evinces a variety of sounds which is thoroughly intoxicating. The atmosphere in the first movement creates a marvelous sense of anticipation, and its Moderato dolce indication affords the group an opportunity to display some of the most lovely dolce playing imaginable - especially the sweetly singing lines from the 1st violin. Their con sordino tone in this movement is positively creamy. But that's not all; there are amazing contrasts of mood and dynamics too which extend vividly into the vivace 2nd movement as well. And the desolation of the Lento is very moving, and generates tremendous momentum and power in the central climactic section.
In the Janacek, I love how they bring out the Dvorak influence without downplaying its modernism. It's interesting to consider Janacek was just one generation ahead of Dvorak but how much more innovative his creativity was to become. It's a delightful combination in his 2nd string quartet - almost as if Dvorak was composing well into the 20th Century. This reading from the Verona is insightful and intriguing - so much so it has me anxiously waiting with anticipation for the Escher Quartet's new recording of both Janacek Quartets due this month on BIS.
The Verona's Azica disc was recorded in 2019 but not released until 2021. It is so good I was eager to acquire their newest disc (2023), "shatter" - this one independently recorded and marketed/promoted/distributed by Bright Shiny Things. Comprised entirely of new works by new composers, it is unfortunately a mixed bag. While excellent playing and recorded sound abound, the program is of uneven quality, as is the production itself. There is no booklet and the simple, folded cardboard enclosure provides minimal printed information about the music. I find this unacceptable for a CD containing completely new music by unknown composers played by a relatively new quartet - precisely when in-depth program notes are needed the most. (There is, however, a QR code one can scan, if so inclined.)
With nothing to prepare me for what I was about to hear, I began listening to the quartet by Reena Esmail. Just as I was getting acquainted with its unusual soundworld, I was suddenly confronted with some awful Hindu wailing. This was an unpleasant intrusion which I wasn't expecting. Grabbing the CD enclosure, I noticed on the back in miniscule print, in an extremely faint light gray font: "featuring Hindustsani (sic) vocalist". Hoping it affected only the first movement (Fantasie), I tried the second movement Scherzo, wondering if/how this vocalization would be incorporated there. Well, it isn't a scherzo at all; it's simply more of the same listless meanderings of the first movement. And soon enough the hideous wailing begins again, just as it did before. Not only did I wonder how this section could possibly be considered a "scherzo", I also wondered why on earth a string quartet would ever schedule such a piece on their program. I found it intolerable and turned it off.
Undeterred, I forged ahead to the next work by a relatively unknown composer where matters improved significantly - at least musically - with Julia Adolphe's Star-Crossed Signals. I was curious about the origins of the title and its two movements, named "Delta X-Ray" and "Kilo Kilo". But alas, about this piece, the CD enclosure merely states: "Adophe (sic) juxtaposes issues of empowerment and the assertion of dominance with an ardent yearning for connection". Um...ok. I still have no concept what the titles mean and how they relate to that. And it is simply astonishing they managed to misspell the composer's name.
But at least the music is interesting. The first movement is intense at times and rather stark, which is attractive in its way. But it ebbs and flows for over 8 minutes without really getting anywhere. The second movement is similar - even more desolate and sparsely scored - and I wished for more contrast from that heard before. I found myself drawn into the yearning character of the music, but it ultimately went on too long for its material despite the Verona Quartet's committed and involving reading of it.
Out of curiosity, I Googled Ms. Adolphe and found her very impressive bio lists numerous orchestral commissions from major orchestras to her credit. I therefore surmise she excels at full-scale orchestral composition and is enjoying some acclaim. Her string quartet music here is intriguing, if not really memorable. It might be interesting to explore her creativity further.
At last we come to the raison d'etre for acquiring this CD - the wonderful Quartet by Michael Gilbertson. Instantly I hear Caroline Shaw's 2011 Entr'acte, with its impulsive, hesitant rhythmic pulses, but in a register 2 - 3 octaves higher up, affording it a glistening quality quite distinctive from Shaw's piece. And this character persists throughout the first movement, Mother Chords. Gilbertson develops it uniquely as his own, and it is wonderfully heartfelt and expressive. The second movement, Simple Sugars, is completely different and provides a refreshing contrast. The music here positively dances with infectious rhythms and jazz-influenced chordal harmonies. Yet it's refined and sophisticated. Here again, I would have loved to understand the meaning behind the titles, especially after reading the brief synopsis in the cardboard enclosure describing the work as "a personal need for comfort and catharsis following the 2016 US Presidential election while mirroring society's alarming dependence upon instant gratification". Interesting...and I have no idea how his titles fit in with that burdensome subject matter. (I tried the internet and not even the group's nor the label's websites provide the liner notes. Why?)
Nevertheless, I loved the piece. It is imaginative, captivating, inspired and inspiring, resourcefully orchestrated and spectacularly played and recorded. After a bit of research of my own, I see Mr. Gilbertson has written a lot of choral music, plus a few concertos and a bit of orchestral music as well. (And just like Shaw's Entr'acte, his Mother Chords has been rescored for string orchestra.) Based on his marvelous Quartet, he is definitely a composer to watch.
Final production comments - spelling errors and lack of program notes aside, there are no individual track timings provided and the total playing time is just 57 minutes. Disregarding the opening work from consideration (which goes on for an astonishing 26+ minutes), that leaves just 31 minutes of worthwhile music on offer here. While the CD can be found for slightly less-than-full-price (on Amazon), it's still an extravagant outlay for just the Gilbertson Quartet, which alone lasts just 15 minutes.