Purchase CDs online from MSR Classics
A guide to the online musical selection
by Barry Lieberman
2010For our performances in May 2010 we think we had one of the best selections of players in the nine year history of the Project. As a result we are planning to issue a double cd for 2010/11. I have chosen excerpts from each of the pieces we performed.
Haydn Opus 64 #4 second movement:
Haydn has always worked well for us and we could literally perform any of his many quartets. I chose this particular quartet for its upbeat character and this minuet gives our leader, Joan Blackman (Associate Concertmaster, Vancouver Symphony) a chance to shine in the Trio. She is accompanied by the full string complement whereas in the quartet version there are only three players doing the pizzicato.
Verdi quartet, second movement:
Verdi's only chamber music work has been arranged by others for full strings including my "hero" Arturo Toscanini with my favorite orchestra the NBC Symphony (currently out of print.) Our leader Alex Kerr (former Concertmaster, Concertgebouw, and current Professor of violin IU) had his first outing with us and is featured in all of the movements of this fantastic piece. Some of the unison passages are awesome and so much more powerful in a large group. While there are other recordings of this piece with full strings none are done without conductor and none are live performances.
Brahms quintet Opus 111, third movement:
We did this piece years ago and I have wanted to return to it since then. I think it has one of the most lyric waltz/scherzo/minuet movements in all of Brahms, only rivaled by the third Symphony. This is a big piece, in particular the first movement which will appear on our upcoming cd. In this third movement you will hear our leader Stephanie Chase, very much a regular performer with the Project, in some gorgeous solo playing. Every now and then I add something in the bass which doesn’t exist in the original piece because I think Brahms would have added it. See if you can figure out what it is.
Mendelssohn quartet Opus 44, first movement:
Like Haydn almost any Mendelssohn piece would work in the Project and we have done many of his quartets and quintets and will continue to do so in the future. His minor key works are my favorites and with this performance we will have done all of them. Our leader is my wife Maria Larionoff (Concertmaster, Seattle Symphony) who always gets to choose which piece to take each year. This movement really benefits from adding the lower octave of the bass giving a huge auditory spectrum to the listener.
Beethoven quartet Opus 59 #2, third movement:
This was the piece I was the least sure about as a transcription but ended up being my favorite performance of the week. This was the movement which first drew me to the piece and was so much fun to get to play for me. The preceding slow movement was magical and much of the credit for this goes to my dearest friend Jorja Fleezanis (former Concertmaster, Minnesota Orchestra, now Professor of violin, IU.) Jorja and I went to Interlochen Arts Academy together and have remained friends and musical colleagues since. This was a piece we both studied while at the Cleveland Institute so it was special for us to do together.
Shostakovich quartet #9, fifth movement:
Due to time restrictions on compact discs this is the only movement of the season that will go onto our 2010 cd. While it is "only" one movement it is over ten minutes long or as long as the entire first four movements. In this performance you will hear our leader Frank Almond (Concertmaster, Milwaukee Symphony,) Adam Smyla (violist, San Francisco Symphony) and Arek Tesarczyk, (cellist, Minnesota Orchestra) as soloists as well as me on double bass. Shostakovich actually wrote many soloistic passages for the double bass in his symphonies. This is a powerful movement with extremely complex meter changes and just about as difficult as it gets.
2009May 2009 was our eighth year. Our repertoire consisted of the Prokofiev 2nd quartet, which was first arranged and performed in 2003. It was such an unusual piece and complicated arrangement I wanted to do it again. You can listen to some of it on from 2003 on this page.
The two pieces I have chosen for our website are the Bernard Herrmann quartet called "Echoes" and Stephanie Chase’s arrangement of the De Falla songs known as "Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas."
Bernard Herrmann has always been my favorite film composer having written the music for Citizen Kane (his first) Taxi Driver (his last) and most of Hitchcock’s most famous films including North by Northwest, Psycho and my favorite score, Vertigo. This string quartet is in one movement and was written in 1965. It is a beautiful piece and reminiscent of his Hitchcock period. Unfortunately, he did not write very much concert music and even less so chamber music. It was an easy and fun piece to transcribe and even more so to play. Frank Almond (Concertmaster, Milwaukee Symphony) leads it brilliantly and Arek Tesarczyk (Minnesota Orchestra) plays the beautiful cello solo.
The DeFalla arrangement was requested by me for Stephanie to arrange. She has arranged several pieces for us in the past including the Carmen Suite and several Sarasate works. In this masterful arrangement, Stephanie manages to create very special colors by giving the lead voice to a variety of instruments and combinations of instruments. I was lucky to get the solo line on my favorite song "Nana." Violin solos are Stephanie Chase, viola solos are Mara Gearman and cello solos are Arek Tesarczyk.
2008Our concerts in 2008 were also in May and we returned again to Shostakovich, perhaps my favorite composer to transcribe. So far all of the quartets we have done written by him have been hugely successful as arrangements. The only other composer whose works seem to translate as universally well are those of Haydn. My wife Maria always has her first pick of pieces to lead and I was not surprised that she chose this one. You can hear her magnificent lyricism in the second slow movement. The first half of the movement is all solo playing until the huge entrance of the entire group. In the middle of this movement I chose to double the celli even into the highest ranges of the double bass, something Shostakovich did more and more in his symphonies. The fourth movement of this piece begins with a plaintiff viola solo but turns quickly into some interesting Russian themes. Of particular interest are the glissandos in the unison groups. This exciting piece ends with one of the most tranquil goodbyes in music.
Brahms has always been a favorite composer of Jorja and me. We studied together in our younger years at Interlochen Arts Academy and the Cleveland Institute of Music. We have been great friends since 1966 and Brahms was always a link between us. We were not sure this piece would work well but it did. Here you hear in the second movement the great composer at his most touching extremes. The contrast of solo playing (Jorja as leader) versus tutti is very striking and one can certainly hear as well the “symphonic” Brahms struggling to come out in the textures. I have included the third movement here because I love the connection between the two movements. Through the miracle of audio editing I removed the pause which is almost indispensable in concert for a variety of reasons. I don’t believe the movements are ever played “attaca” but I wanted to be able to listen to the piece that way.
2007In May 2007 we took on what was surely our most challenging work to date, that being the Bartok 1st string quartet. Also programmed was one of the most famous quartets in the genre’s literature, Schubert’s magnificent Death and the Maiden quartet.
The Schubert had already been arranged for a larger string ensemble by the great composer Gustav Mahler. Normally I do not program works which have already been transcribed. There are so many pieces which have never been done that I want to play. I have performed the Mahler version on several occasions and was never really satisfied that he used the double bass enough. He also does not indicate passages to be played as solos which are actually a hallmark of my arrangements. I will say that I was quite pleased with a review in the prestigious Strad Magazine published in Great Britain and considered the gold standard of string magazines in which the reviewer said that he preferred my arrangement over Mahler’s.
In the excerpts chosen here, the second and fourth movements, you can hear examples both of a much more extensive use of the double bass as well as hearing a lot of solo quartet playing with beautiful violin solos by the famous Ani Kavafian. The second movement is most well known for the Death and the Maiden theme and its variations. The fourth movement is wickedly difficult; especially at the tempo we took and again is an example of using the bass where Mahler may have thought it would be too difficult to play on such a large instrument.
The Bartok presented entirely different problems. The movements are played “attaca” which means without pause. Once the piece begins there are no moments where one can relax their concentration. There are also many subtle changes of tempi difficult even for a quartet but compounded with a fifteen member ensemble. The piece required much more rehearsal than most pieces we do and required everyone to know the piece in depth. Led extremely well by Jorja Fleezanis, we all felt very gratified to have it go so well. His later quartets get more and more difficult yet beckon to me.
2006We have performed only one other quartet of Beethoven, Opus 95 in 2003. Obviously his music lends itself well to our adaptations but it is fiendishly difficult to play, and Opus 18, no. 4 is no exception even though it was composed early in Beethoven's life. It straddles the border between the Classical and Romantic periods and shows his pull away from tradition.
There probably isn't another composer who so perfectly transfers from original quartet instrumentation to our larger ensemble as Dmitri Shostakovich. I am sure that as the Project continues for years to come we will eventually do all of his quartets. Number 8 is famous as a string orchestra piece but our versions of numbers 2 and 12 illustrate how the added depth of the double bass and the expanded string sections (5 firsts, 4 seconds, 3 violas, 2 celli, and 1 double bass) change the work from a quartet into a string symphony.
In the Sarasate, as in the Carmen arrangement, Stephanie Chase once again demonstrates her skill as an arranger of solo violin works as well as her prowess as a player. This music really shows the true virtuosity of our players as ensemble players as well as soloists. Each principal player (even the double bass) gets extensive solo opportunities in this most operatic of instrumental works. Each of the three pieces, Caprice Basque, Romanza Andalusa, and the famous Ziguenerweisen, has a Spanish flavor and major pyrotechnics.
2005Ani Kavafian led this piece in her first season with the Project. I wanted to do this Mendelssohn, and it's a favorite of Ani's as well. I was torn as to which part of this work I should feature here. The second movement includes really interesting interplay between "tutti" (the full orchestra) and "solo" (one person alone). The last movement features some intense cadenzas by Ani.
Stephanie Chase is the arranger of this work based on Bizet's Carmen, Sarasate's virtuosic violin piece A Carmen Fantasy. Being an amazing virtuoso herself, Stephanie has produced an arrangement that is perfect for a group like ours. Again, it was difficult choosing the passages to include on this site.
2004I thought the Schubert was one of the more fun pieces we have done and I chose the last movement because of the virtuosity in the first violins. Most of the passages are hard enough for one player; the playing here attests to the individual as well as collective talents of the Project.
The opening of the Brahms quartet's last movement was written in the perfect key for adding the bass. It makes an awesome sound following the end of the third movement. On our disc I shortened the time between those two movements to simulate attacca (no time between movements).
The Sarabande has always been one of my favorite movements for string orchestra. It is from Britten's Simple Symphony and is the only movement I like from a piece which I also think is rather badly named. In our performance it is the middle part of a trilogy and is followed directly by the Barber Adagio for Strings. The Britten ends on a very soft B- flat and the Barber begins on the very same note. Britten writes really good bass parts (this piece was not arranged; it is Britten's original.) Actually I did change one thing but you would have to be a bass player to know... and maybe not even then.
2003The Mendelssohn viola quintets have worked well for us and are fun for our great violists to play. Adding the bass and thickening the strings makes this bigger-than-life sound, even on a recording. This movement in particular has some of the greatest bass lines in music. Every bass player I know dreams of playing this kind of chamber music.
The Prokofiev quartet was like the Ravel in terms of my figuring out how to add the bass. Having played Prokofiev's quintet many times, as well as most of his orchestral works, I knew he liked having the top part and the bottom play in unison, most often the violin and the basses. This gave me a chance to turn one of the cello solos into a bass solo, making it a duet with the solo violin, which just happened to be the leader of that piece-- my wife, Maria. It also gave me an opportunity to double the first and second violins while the celli are doing some difficult and fast technical work. This really thickened the sound in a way that would be impossible in the original quartet version, and which is also difficult to detect unless you know the piece well.