The Strad issue
The Blair Quartet brings many good qualities to Ives’s idiosyncratic quartets, not least the ability to bind their more bizarre aspects together with conviction. There is a muscularity to this playing, emphasised by the clear, dry recording, which aptly complements Ives at his most uncompromising. There is simplicity, too, in the more naive sections of the first quartet, as well as charm in its Haydnesque moments and depth in the wider emotional landscape of the third movement Adagio. (This is the four-movement version of the work, with the original first movement reinstated, as is now common practice – something not made clear to the author of the booklet.)
The Blair comes into its own in the abrasive world of the Second Quartet. Ives here calls for combat as much as harmony, figurative or otherwise, and the quartet responds with alacrity. The first movement, ‘Discussions’, is both vigorous and intense. To its second movement, ‘Arguments’, the players bring a splendid aggression, punching out its motor rhythms and weaving its wiry polyphony into textures both full and luminous. The balance in the last movement goes slightly awry, possibly at the hands of the producer, as the cello thrusts its way out of the speakers beneath a violin twittering in what sounds like the next room. But this is a minor quibble about a first-rate performance. Ives’s Scherzo, slotted between the two quartets, is performed with suitably crazed astringency.