The Catalyst Quartet Release the Most Gorgeously Memorable Album of 2021 So Far
For the most rapturously gorgeous piece of music released so far this year, cue up the Catalyst Quartet’s new recording of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Humoresque, streaming at Spotify (there’s also a live version at youtube). It starts as a quasi-Balkan dance. When the sun busts through the clouds and a chorus of sorts kicks in, it’s a gutpunch. The album it’s on, Uncovered Vol. 1, should come with one of those stickers that you sometimes see on old heavy metal and punk records from the 80s: PLAY LOUD.
The quartet’s mission in recording an all Coleridge-Taylor album is to resurrect the poignant and sublimely melodic music of this fascinating composer beyond the organ demimonde. where his works are still frequently played – at least in free parts of the world, one hopes, anyway. Coleridge-Taylor is sometimes referred to as the British Brahms, but the British Dvorak is a much better comparison (this blog rates Coleridge-Taylor a cut above both). He died tragically young. His instantly identifiable sound echoes Dvorak’s fondness for Romany riffs, but also the African-American spiritual tradition. Which is no surprise, considering that Coleridge-Taylor was black.
It’s a trip to hear the Catalyst Quartet, champions of some of the most acerbic and sometimes challenging contemporary composers, playing such unselfconsciously beautiful High Romantic music, right down to an understated, period-perfect vibrato trailing out on the longer notes and the somewhat muted sonics of the recording. And yet, this music is rich with irony and a woundedness that’s sometimes allusively vengeful. The group – violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Jessie Montgomery, violist Paul Laraia and cellist Karlos Rodriguez are joined by pianist Stewart Goodyear to open the record with Coleridge-Taylor’s Quintet in G minor for Piano and Strings, from 1893. The first movement reveals intriguing hints of both American Indian and Mexican music along with saturnine blues-tinged phrases woven into its dynamic shifts from the heroic to the pastoral.
Movement two has an opulent, tender, lullaby quality underscored by Goodyear and Laraia. The third movement has an elegant, Beethovenesque lilt but also a return to the gusty, bracing peaks of the opening theme. Goodyear’s emphatic, triumphant drive is matched by the ebullience of the strings in the conclusion, which manages to be as biting as it is cheerily catchy.
That delicious (and not necessarily amusing) Humoresque is the third movement of Coleridge-Taylor’s Fantasiestücke Op. 5, a string quartet work from two years later. The opening Prelude comes across as a comfortably dancing nocturne, the serenade of a second movement awash in rapt lustre. The Minuet and Trio are angst-tinged songs without words: it’s astonishing that nobody has ripped them off for pop songs in the century since they were written. The anthemic concluding dance is the most Dvoriakan moment here.
Anthony McGill is the soloist in the concluding piece, the Quintet in F sharp minor for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 10, from 1906. The opening movement begins with sharp contrasts between McGrill’s unassailable liquidity and the dark incisiveness of the strings, then calms, but the tension remains, Vienna versus Veracruz. The textural richness and tenderness of the second will take your breath away, while the balletesque cheer of the third prefigures Gershwin. In the conclusion, it’s fascinating to see how the composer handles his return to the conflict inherent in the introduction, for a deviously playful payoff.
Just as auspiciously, this album is the first in a planned series featuring the works of other underrated and undeservedly obscure black composers including Florence Price and William Grant Still, among many others.