In a profession where getting a hearing is half the battle, 1987 has been good to composer John Harbison. It has given him a Pulitzer Prize as well as performances of his choral work ``The Flight Into Egypt'' and his new Symphony No. 2. And now it has brought us the world premi`ere of his String Quartet No. 2, played by the young, dynamic Emerson Quartet. For the Friday Wang Celebrity Series concert at Jordan Hall, Harbison, who was in the audience, had provided the program note. The five unbroken movements in his 26-minute composition were inspired, he wrote, by Bach's pre-quartet cantatas and Purcell's fantasias. But the theme was contemporary: ``how it feels to live now, from at least one urgently felt perspective.'' To judge from the work, those feelings are turbulent, hesitant, and sometimes pained but not cynical nor resigned.
If this listener gauged it correctly, the 5-minute, contrapuntal Fantasia opens with a spare, slow violin motif full of Baroque figures etched in sere autumnal tones. This theme becomes the catalyst for a movement that grows brisk and agitated before settling back into its tentative, uncertain mood and trailing off. The 3-minute Concertino that follows, with its propulsive themes punctuated by pizzicato plunk-plunk-plunks that reverberate like water dripping in a cavern, serves as an interlude to the centerpiece.
The 9-minute Recitative, reminiscent of vocal music, provides the more lyrical anchor for the work, in which the second violin pretends to be an operatic tenor breaking an audience's heart with his plaintive song, while his partners breathe faint little sighs. Later the cello, like a baritone playing the heavy, steals the melody. The violins keen and trill and skitter like wind-driven leaves while the movement lurches to its intricate climax, followed by a moment of quiet, and then that plaintive theme again. Soon the full-bodied 4-minute Sonata movement gathers speed to bring us to the Ricercare. This final rhythmical 4-minute movement, responds to the growing momentum, pulses with still more pizzicatos, and goes out marching to a heavy beat.
The piece, commissioned by the Harvard Musical Association, shows Harbison's skill with rhythmic and tonal textures more than clearly delineated lines. His indeterminate cadences left some listeners wondering. The work was rationally engaging and rich in mood but lacked the warmth often needed to generate enthusiasm.
The Emerson Quartet gave a fine and committed performance. The Harbison work, Schubert's profound Quartet in G Major (D. 887), and a Beethoven encore (from Op. 135) showed the players capable not only of subtle dynamics, passion, and brilliant solo work but of fading instantly back into the ensemble after their moments of glory. These pieces made the opening Haydn work (Op. 74, No. 2) seem trite and trivial by contrast.
Harbison on record
A selection of current releases:
Symphony No. 1 (1980-84), the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with Seiji Ozawa (New World NW-331).
Ulysses' Bow (1984), Pittsburgh Symphony with Andr'e Previn (Nonesuch 79129).
Variations (1982), with Rosemary Harbison, violin; David Satz, clarinet; and Ursula Oppens, piano. With Mirabai Songs (1982), performed by Janice Felty and the Collage New Music Ensemble (Northeastern Records NR230-CD).
Full Moon in March (1979), opera performed by Boston Musica Viva and soloists (CRI S-454).
Piano Concerto (1978), Robert Miller, pianist, with the American Composers Orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller (CRI S-440).