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Price & Sowerby: Music for String Quartet / Avalon String Quartet

Price & Sowerby: Music for String Quartet / Avalon String Quartet

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"Merit[s] hearty recommendation." -- Textura

Learn more about this recording on the Naxos Classical Spotlight podcast!

Naxos’s exploration of the works of Florence Price continues with this album of music for string quartet. Price and Leo Sowerby were contemporaries in the Chicago music community of the 1930s and 1940s, and they are known to have respected each other’s works. Sowerby’s String Quartet in G minor is a world premiere recording. Performed by the Avalon String Quartet – one of America’s leading chamber music ensembles.


Avalon String Quartet (violinists Blaise Magnière and Marie Wang, violist Anthony Devroye, cellist Cheng-Hou Lee) has been awarded prestigious prizes and issued a number of recordings, one of them Grammy-nominated.

The story of Price's rescue from obscurity is now familiar...her ongoing rediscovery continues. Though she wrote almost 400 pieces for orchestra, chamber ensemble, and piano, as well as art songs and arrangements of spirituals, most of the compositions by the Little Rock-born Price were unpublished at the time of her 1953 death. The discovery in 2009 of an abundance of lost pieces was instrumental in seeing her music undergo its current renaissance. The String Quartet No. 2 in A minor...was not performed in her lifetime and first published in 2019. Characteristic of her writing, there is European classicism as well as lyrical themes drawn from African American spirituals and folk songs.

Leo Sowerby's String Quartet in G minor, H. 226 (1935) isn't the first work by the Michigan-born composer Avalon has performed as two of his string quartets were recorded for Cedille Records in 2021. This one holds the distinction, however, of being the premiere recording of his G minor quartet. As different in musical character as their quartets on this release are, Price and Sowerby were both prominent figures in the Chicago music community in the ‘30s and ‘40s and were apparently aware of and respected each other's work. Like her, his music—more than 500 works in various genres (a cantata brought him the 1946 Pulitzer Prize)—is ripe for rediscovery, and Avalon is doing its part.

Sowerby's quartet doesn't have the immediate appeal of Price's melodically enticing quartet and is also more austere, but it's nevertheless a work of sophistication and quality; it's certainly not lacking for contrast between the four movements either. They're intimated by descriptive titles, the opening “Languidly; darkly – Fast; with dash,” for example, cuing the listener as to what to expect. Consistent with that, it begins broodingly, its eerie aura reminiscent of Bartók, before exposition introduces agitation and urgency and then something akin to lyrical serenity. Contrapuntally rich, the movement makes its way through multiple episodes for nearly fourteen minutes, some foreboding and others introspective. Some moments could even be called Debussy-esque. The “Very fast” scherzo moves with relentless propulsion, though it catches its breath during its slowed middle section before heating up again. “Slowly; rhapsodically” provides five minutes of soothing calm before the multi-faceted closing movement, “(Recitative:) Broadly – (Fugue:) Moderately fast, yet with broad sweep,” arrives.

Ending the album strongly is a second endearing work by Price, Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet (1951), which followed her Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint by four years. Familiar melodies bolster the appeal of the 1951 setting, with ones such as “Shortnin' Bread,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Oh, My Darling Clementine” instantly recognizable. The spiritual “Calvary” is the seed from which the opening adagio grows, with Price embroidering the melody polyphonically. In “Andantino (Clementine),” the plaintive melody is voiced directly by the violin before being echoed by the other instruments. Whereas the slow central movement exudes a tender melancholy in building itself around the eighteenth-century tune “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” “Allegro (Shortnin' Bread and other folk songs)” lifts the spirits with dance rhythms and an exultant tone. Cello voices the melody first in “Andantino (Swing Low, Sweet Chariot),” after which the tune migrates from one instrument to another, much as it does during the opening movement.

-- Textura

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    • UPC/Barcode: 636943994122
    • Item Number: 8559941