Title: Uncovered Vol. 1, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Artist: Catalyst Quartet, with Stewart Goodyear and Anthony McGill
Release date: February 5, 2021
Great performances and recordings of their work can go a long way in helping solidify the reputation of any composer. The GRAMMY Award-winning Catalyst Quartet is working to use their immense talent to highlight chamber music by composers who may have been overlooked because of their race or gender with a new series of recordings, titled Uncovered. Volume One, featuring early works by Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, promises an exceptional project, bringing the incredible playing of a top-tier string quartet to finely selected repertoire.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor may not be a household name to some classical music fans, but in his lifetime he was highly regarded as a conductor and as the composer of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, one of the most performed choral works of the late nineteenth century. Born in 1875, as the son of an English mother and a Krio father (a descendent of freed African American slaves who resettled in Sierra Leone), Coleridge-Taylor was raised by his mother in a music-loving family, who encouraged Samuel’s obvious talent on the violin. This recording shines light on three of his early chamber works from 1893-1895, written while a student at the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Charles Villiers Stanford at the same time as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Stanford’s teaching was centered on the conservative classicism of Brahms, which is evident in Coleridge-Taylor’s own motivic concision and traditional forms. The melodies, textures, and rhythmic play, however, show inventiveness and also draw on new developments in the music of Dvořák, whose compositions the teenaged Coleridge-Taylor had recently encountered.
The first volume of Uncovered arrives with a bang in the first chords and confident opening theme of Coleridge-Taylor’s Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 1, announcing that the works in the series demand to be heard. The first movement, Allegro con moto, is a sonata-form opening movement that introduces some of Coleridge-Taylor’s signature sounds: a blend of seriousness and playfulness, immersion in Romantic harmony, and a fascination with alternating and layering duple and triple divisions of the beat. Throughout the quintet, Coleridge-Taylor pits the piano (helmed by the brilliant Stewart Goodyear) against the strings, alternating focus, while also creating a variety of textures and moods. The Larghetto is Chopinesque in its lyricism and chromaticism, with beautiful solo playing by Karla Donehew Perez on the violin and Karlos Rodriguez on the cello. The Scherzo is jolting with its rhythmic play. The closing movement opens in an uncertain meter and distant E-flat major, but quickly finds its way back to G minor and a race to the finish. This is the most exciting of the movements, with a miniature vivace fugue that shows off Coleridge-Taylor’s counterpoint chops and ramps up tension to an exhilarating finish.
The Fantasiestücke, op. 5, is a collection of five short character works for string quartet, and perhaps the most Romantic of the three pieces on the album. The work highlights the stylistic capabilities of the Catalyst Quartet, with fluid tempos, assorted articulations, and gentle swells of sound. The opening Prelude shows Coleridge Taylor playing with duple and triple divisions, creating a churning effect, while the Serenade is a serene lullaby despite being in 5/4 time (a la the waltz in Tchaikovsky’s contemporaneous Pathétique Symphony). The Humeresque brings back playful cross-rhythms and misplaced accents while still having a strong folk character in the vein of a Dvořák scherzo, but with a surprisingly sedate middle section. The Minuet is perhaps the least danceable of the movements, with Romantic soupy trills, and a hazy far-off sound in the trio. The concluding Dance is another great finale, chromatic and fast, creating a dreamy blur of motion.
The Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp Minor, op. 10, is probably the most well-known of the pieces performed here, and the Catalyst Quartet is joined by the impeccable Anthony McGill, the 2020 recipient of the Avery Fisher Prize. Coleridge-Taylor’s Clarinet Quintetwas composed just four years after Brahms had written his own and immediately after a performance of Brahms’ quintet at the Royal College of Music. The first and closing movements show Coleridge-Taylor at his most developmental, with the main motives being transformed constantly in a variety of keys and moods. The second movement Larghetto affettuoso is reminiscent of Dvořák’s slow movement from his Ninth Symphony, with its symmetry and simplicity, and the beautiful clarinet solo over muted, sustained strings. The third movement Scherzo is the culmination of Coleridge-Taylor’s alternating duple and triple meter, marked with the simultaneous time signature of 9/8 3/4, with jolting contrasts and often uncertain key areas. The Finale is motivically linked to the opening movement, and the second theme is convincingly both lyric and heroic. The coda seems to have gone to an entirely different universe before being jolted back to a triumphant F-sharp major conclusion. Special attention should be given to McGill for his ability to meld with the quartet, utilizing his abilities as an orchestral musician to blend and create an astonishing array of colors, and also with delicate solo playing. It is a stunning piece and performance all around, and I cannot wait for volume two, featuring the music of Florence Price.
Reviewed by Bret McCandless, Rowan University