Emotionally searing advocacy bring neglected quartets to life

Avalon Quartet: Price, Sowerby

The Strad Issue: May 2024

Description: Emotionally searing advocacy bring neglected quartets to life

Musicians: Avalon Quartet

Works: Price: String Quartet no.2; Five Folksongs in Counterpoint. Sowerby: String Quartet in G minor

Catalogue number: NAXOS 8.559941

This full-to-bursting new disc is very much a Chicago affair, with the Avalon Quartet, which is based in the city, paying homage to two composers who also spent most of their lives and careers there. More importantly, it also shines fresh light on repertoire that has been hitherto underappreciated – and there’s lots to appreciate in the three substantial works here.

Florence Price melds together jazz, blues, African-American song tunes and European-style dissonance in her 1935 Second String Quartet, while her Five Folksongs in Counterpoint find sometimes surprising (and surprisingly cerebral) new settings for ‘Clementine’ and ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, among other tunes. The Avalon players clearly believe deeply in the music, giving vividly characterised, strongly projected accounts, full of thick vibrato and a dense corporate sound that – panned widely left and right – nonetheless separates the four players’ lines. A little more air and variety in approaching the music might not have gone amiss, but you can’t fault their commitment.

The disc’s real discovery, however, is the 1935 Quartet by Leo Sowerby, better known for his organ and choral music. It’s an often thorny, dissonant piece, densely argued and churning in its emotions, but the Avalon musicians play it with all the passion and conviction it needs, from its exquisitely yearning slow movement to the sometimes violent scherzo. It’s a compelling collection, captured in close but somewhat resonant sound.