American String Project
MSR Classics MSR 1522 (msrcd.com)
On crisp autumn nights, when musicians from the Seattle Symphony sit around a campfire made from discarded conductors’ batons (as they are wont to do), double bassist Barry Lieberman could have cried into his Peet’s coffee over a sore complaint—he was shut out from playing in string quartets. But instead, he did something about it. He founded the American String Project, a 15-member string orchestra with a distinguished roster from American and Canadian symphonies. Its specialty was to perform string quartets and quintets arranged, by Lieberman, with a double bass part. The ensemble plays traditional string orchestra repertoire, too, but it’s this body of over 100 quartet and quintet transcriptions, amassed during a spring week every year between 2002 and 2011, that made the ensemble unique.
I haven’t heard previous CDs from previous seasons, but the playing on the present one is expert, and Lieberman’s arrangements are musically convincing. He sticks to the transcriber’s duty to present the original score, but here and there, as in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Quartet No. 3, a soloist may be given a phrase rather than all the section. Titling the album American String Project 2014 is baffling, however, because what we have are live performances from 2011, the year that the Project finished with string orchestra repertoire and moved on—their current focus is on education and chamber music. Lieberman, now a professor at the University of Washington, accomplished his aim to fill a gap in the American music scene, the absence of a first-rate conductorless string orchestra. One cannot argue against the precision, energy, and musicality of all the performances here. I wondered in advance if too much was lost by expanding a string quartet, which is a model of refinement and nuance in Western classical music, to a body of strings, where personality must be subdued in favor of plangent sound, a lusher texture, and orchestral depth. There’s a big difference, after all, between what Tchaikovsky wanted when he wrote his serenade for strings and when he wrote his three quartets. On its own terms, however, the Tchaikovsky Third Quartet works very well in Lieberman’s transcription. I think the secret is the composer’s warm Romanticism, which only gets more ardent as more voices are added. At the other extreme, the Haydn “Fifths” Quartet also works, because its Classicism doesn’t need great amounts of personality; poise, balance, and clarity are the real necessities, which this reading delivers.
The remaining selections are encore movements, of which the Air from Grieg’s Holberg Suite is especially touching. Given how successful this CD turned out to be, my interest is piqued by the American String Project’s double-disc release celebrating their 10th anniversary (MSR 1386). On it, among other enticements, they play Beethoven’s entire Razumovsky Quartet No. 2—now that must be something.
- Huntley Dent
American String Project
MSR Classics MS 1269 (msrcd.com)
Feeling disenfranchised from participation in the world of chamber music, double bassist Barry Lieberman set himself the task of adding a part for his instrument to major string quartets and quintets. He soon realized that the music's center of gravity then became totally changed, and required more upper strings, and so be began creating arrangements for a small chamber orchestra. That in turn required many judicious decisions as to when full strings could be employed and as to where he should return to the original solo voices. Since then Lieberman has toyed with many works before adapting those where he considers the composer would have been pleased with his additions. Schubert's “Death and the Maiden” has already been arranged by Mahler - not always, Lieberman believes, with the best results. Having compared them I would take Lieberman. Here you have the feel of a beautifully balanced chamber symphony, the lower voices bringing new warmth to the general texture. I am less convinced by Bartok's first Quartet, for though the angular rhythms remain, the astringent aspects become lost in the lush surroundings, and the resulting timbre leans towards Shostakovich. For his American String Quartet Project, Lieberman has called on friends from around the States and further afield to for a 15-piece string ensemble. The performances were recorded during concerts last year, the playing is technically good throughout, and, despite the size of the ensemble, is often of intimate delicacy. Though aesthetic question marks may remain, I much enjoyed this disc, and if the recorded sound is nothing special, it is always pleasing.
- David Denton
American String Project
MSR Classics MSR 1269 (msrcd.com)
The American String Project, established in Seattle by Barry Lieberman and Maria Larionoff in 2002,
is an annual festival that brings together prominent sting player to form a 15-member orchestra which performs original works and arrangements without conductor.
Its first recording for MSR Classics documented the 2006 festival with transcriptions of quartets by Beethoven (Op. 18 No. 4) and Shostakovich (Op. 133), and of pieces by Sarasate.
This new release features live performances from the 2007 festival, with the orchestra
(five firsts, four seconds, three violas, two cellos and a double bass) in Lieberman's imaginatively resourceful transcriptions of Schubert's Death and the Maiden and Bartók's First Quartet.
Though the idea of string orchestras performing the quartet literature may seem unusual to contemporary tastes, it is not without historical precedent. It was in this form that François-Antoine Habaneck introduced Parisians to the quartets of Beethoven at the Société des Concets du Conservatoire in the 1830s. Two decades later, Habaneck's successor, Narcisse Girard, did the same for Haydn quartets. More recent instances are the sensitive transcriptions of Mahler (of Beethoven's Op. 95) and Schoenberg (of the Brahms Quintet, Op. 25). Happily, the American String Project's performances need no justification, historical or otherwise. Due in no small measure to the expert leadership of the two primaries, Ani Kavafian in the Schubert and Jorja Fleezanis in the Bartók, ensemble values are in a league with the front ranks of conventional quartets. Accuracy of attack, secure intonation, beautifully executed agogic nuances and uniformly adept bowing all contribute to the success of these satisfying readings. It is fascinating to hear how readily the drama of the first movement of Death and the Maiden adapts and intensifies in this expanded sonorous guise. The second movement variations, on the other hand, sacrifice little of their fragile intimacy. The Scherzo demonstrates the proximity of its inspirational source with that of the C major Symphony, while the concluding Presto seems to throw open the door to a vast landscape, the dimensions of which are only suggested in the original.
Enlarged sonic dimensions are no less provocative in the Bartók, occasionally casting fresh light on a texture or gesture that had heretofore seemed obscure. Certainly the inherent power of the opening Lento emerges here as almost threateningly ominous (though the opening bars, in my opinion, would have been immeasurably enhanced with less vibrato). Tricky rhythmic shifts are adeptly negotiated in the finale, where the expanded forces conclude the argument with an air of incontestable affirmation.
Technical values of the recording, captured in a sympathetic acoustical space with rich presence, are superb. Chamber music purists may grumble, as did Chopin when he heard Habaneck conduct a string orchestra in Beethoven quartets: “You think you're hearing four gigantic instruments: the violins like a palace, the viola like a bank, and the cello like a Protestant church.” Yet, as with the best transcriptions, the refined and viscerally exciting American String Project performances, through alterations of weight and volume, provide starling insights into music we thought we knew. Warmly recommended.
2010American String Project mixes things up this year, resulting in memorable moments
By Sumi Hahn of The Seattle Times
Barry Lieberman's American String Project returns for a ninth season with five new arrangements
By Zach Carstensen of Gathering Note
The American String Project Polishes Perfection
By KingYau Li of Seattle Chinese Times
Second night of American String Project features Mendelsson & Beethoven
By Dana Wen of Gathering Note
Haydn and Shostakovich: American String Project
By Bernard Jacobson of MusicWeb International
Marta Zekan of the KING FM Arts Channel interviews Barry Lieberman
Windows Media Player required
American String Project hits all the right notes
Seattle Post-Intelligencer; May 15, 2008
By R.M. Campbell
American String Project comes to life again in spring
Seattle Post-Intelligencer music critic; May 8, 2008
By R.M. Campbell
2007Top players bond quickly with exciting performance
Seattle Times; May 17, 2007
By Melinda Bargreen
American Newly united string players provide a lush performance
Special to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; May 18, 2007
By Philippa Kiraly