This disc contains three enterprising works for string quartet and orchestra, an unusual but effective combination too seldom exploited, plus an entertaining encore, Saibei Dance by Chinese/Canadian composer An-Lun Huang. The most important piece on the disc is Benjamin Lees’ Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, which was recorded by RCA in the middle of the last century by Igor Buketoff and the Royal Philharmonic, and issued in tandem with Roger Sessions’ Third Symphony. It has been long due for a new recording, and this one is outstanding. The work is pure neo-classicism, close in style to the Hindemith of the Kammermusik series, containing arresting but modern-sounding ideas presented in a crystal-clear formal context. The finale, for example, is a rondo whose recurring idea is a motoric theme for string quartet punctuated by irregular strokes on the drums (sound clip). It’s instantly identifiable in whatever form it returns, and it places the intervening episodes in high relief.
Michael Abels’ Delights and Dances, a single movement for string quartet and string orchestra, offers a more modern take on Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for the same forces. Beginning moodily with solo strings, it gradually increases in energy through to the jazzy conclusion. Finally, Randall Craig Fleischer has arranged a selection from Bernstein’s West Side Story for string quartet and orchestra. I am not wholly convinced by his calling this suite of 10 movements a “concerto”, despite the addition of two “cadenzas” along the way. This is not, incidentally, an arrangement of the Symphonic Dances, since it includes numbers (“America”, “Quintet”, “Tonight”) that are not part of that work. Not surprisingly, the arrangements work best in the more lyrical episodes, many of which feature solo strings or solo voices anyway, but the fact is that the tunes are so memorable that they could be played on a ukelele and still sound wonderful (no offense to any ukelele players out there). Anyway, the piece certainly is fun as it stands.
The Harlem Quartet, dedicatees of Abels’ piece, play all of this music very beautifully indeed. They have a warm, well balanced corporate sonority, rock solid rhythm, and the ability to play hard without coarsening the tone unnecessarily. The Chicago Sinfonietta under Mei-Ann Chen is a virtuoso group that accompanies with impressive technique, and the sonics are typically excellent. This is a very, very fine disc.