CARPENTER: Violin Sonata / String Quartet / Piano Quintet (Paul Posnak/ Sergiu Schwartz/ Vega Quartet) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559103)
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John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951)
Violin Sonata String Quartet Piano Quintet
John Alden Carpenter was born in Park Ridge, Illinois, on 28th February, 1876. The son of a successful industrialist and professional singer, he enjoyed a thorough musical education, graduating from Harvard University in 1897, having studied composition with John Knowles Paine. He joined the family firm, becoming its vice-president in 1909 and thereafter, like his very different contemporary Charles Ives, combined business with composition. He had a brief period of study with Elgar in Rome during 1906, and from 1908-12 lessons in theory with Bernhard Ziehn, whose ideas on counterpoint were much admired by Busoni. Carpenter was the recipient of five honorary doctorates, and in 1947 the gold medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He died in Chicago on 26th April, 1951.
Although Carpenters early work was much influenced by Germanic models absorbed from Paine, the ballet Adventures in a Perambulator (1914) confirms a knowledge of French and Russian sources, while the presence of Chicago urban jazz is evident as early as the 1915 Concertino. The jazz pantomine Krazy Kat (1921) and the Paul Whiteman-commissioned A Little Piece of Jazz (1925) were seminal jazz-classical fusions in their day, while the ballet Skyscrapers (1924), initially planned for Dyagilevs Ballet Russes, complements the ballets of Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Later works, such as the Whitman-inspired Sea Drift (1933) and the Violin Concerto (1936) return to the Romantic, nostalgic idiom which characterizes the three chamber works here featured.
The Violin Sonata was completed in 1913. A placid piano introduction prepares for the Larghettos ruminative, rather Delian theme, effortlessly floated by the violin. A more impassioned continuation finds the instruments integrating more closely, before the theme itself is tenderly recalled. Another animated episode, and the movement concludes with a fleeting reminiscence of the main theme. The Allegro opens with a robust dance motion in both instruments, followed by a wistful theme for violin. The opening music returns, then a minor key version of the second theme, and both ideas are further alternated before the brusque coda. The Largo mistico is one of Carpenters most haunting inspirations. The limpid opening melody intertwines violin and piano to poetic effect, the latter introducing the elegiac second theme with scarcely a break in mood. This arrives with heavy piano chords, and a more intense recall of the first theme, winding down in a mood of expectancy. The Presto giocoso opens at a canter, its spry main theme deftly folk-inflected. The second theme is in complete contrast, encouraging the violin to a heartfelt outpouring, before the first idea makes a reappearance. The melodies are briefly combined, then the second builds to a fervent climax, involving a recall of the main theme from the opening movement, and closing the work in a mood of lingering nostalgia.
The String Quartet dates from 1927. The Allegro begins with questing, chromatic writing for the ensemble, perhaps recalling the quartet music of Arnold Bax or Frank Bridge. The cello introduces a more settled theme, though an oscillating motion on the other instruments prevents a sense of greater calm. This only arrives with a viola melody, which proves as restful as it is short-lived. A shift to the major mode, however, for a purposeful development of the themes lightens the mood considerably, and the movement seems to be moving to a confident conclusion, but a sudden reference back to the opening sees the energy fall away rapidly. A poignant viola motif begins the Adagio, opening out into a restrained but soulful discourse, emphasized by the violins searching contribution. The movement reaches a brief climax, before returning to its pensive state and closing on a note of gentle anticipation. This is answered by the offbeat rhythmic motion of the Moderato, the presence of folk-music once more to the fore. The mood deepens with a yearning cello theme, lovingly accompanied by upper strings. The violins rejoinder steers the music back to its initial animation, and the two main ideas alternate and combine before bringing the work to an end with incisive rhythmic gestures.
The Piano Quintet, composed in 1937, typifies Carpenters later music. A broadly rhetorical gesture from the piano opens the Moderato, strings entering in expressive response. An incisive theme now takes hold, led off with purposeful chords in the pianos left hand. A more tranquil passage links back to the opening, but rhythmic animation is regained, and intensive development of the musical material ensues. The viola reintroduces the second theme, and the opening piano gesture is itself recalled as a lead-in to a varied and animated reprise. A lengthy coda combines elements of all the main ideas, before rounding-off the movement in a delightfully skittish manner. Undulating piano chords deep in the bass underpin the Andantes emotional main theme, with its hymn-like rejoinder. An intense climax is reached, and the discourse continues in richer and more expressive harmonies. A starker, more declamatory climax is short-lived, and the movement passes into a sombre but restful coda, with a beguiling touch of Debussyian whole-tone harmony. Syncopated piano chords launch the Allegro non troppo, strings responding with an energetic, folk-inflected theme. An affecting melody gradually takes hold, dovetailing into its predecessor with satisfying continuity. Both themes undergo a concise development, before the latter makes its emotionally-heightened reappearance. A transformation of the works opening piano gesture, impassioned on all five instruments, forms a bracing conclusion.