The Catalyst Quartet Release Another Batch of Delicious Rediscoveries
The Catalyst Quartet are in the midst of a herculean project, resurrecting the work of undeservedly obscure Black American composers. At this point in history, it looks like we’ve finally reached the moment where the racist divide-and-conquer originally conceived to justify the slave trade has been pushed back under the rock from which it crawled. So the time has never been more ripe for rediscoveries like these. While the sinister forces who astroturfed CRT and BLM may be doing their best to weaponize the legacy of artists like Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, William Grant Still and George Walker for a different kind of divide-and-conquer, we mustn’t conflate those schemes with the artists. There are so many breathtaking moments in those composers’ music, and nobody knows that better than violinists Abi Fayette and Karla Donehew Perez, violist Paul Laraia and cellist Karlos Rodriguez.
Their next concert is on April 24 at 7:30 PM as part of the monthly Music Mondays free concert series at Advent Church at 93rd and Broadway on the Upper West Side, where they’re playing works by Florence Price as well as new arrangements of old spirituals, and a new setting of Langston Hughes’s poem, Kids Who Die. It’s a neighborhood institution: get there at least fifteen minutes before showtime if you want a seat.
The quartet’s latest record in their ongoing Uncovered series is the third volume – streaming at Spotify – which opens with Perkinson’s succinct three-movement String Quartet No. 1, “Calvary.” He was an interesting guy: a jazz pianist and one of the first Black American symphony orchestra conductors, who also did some memorable arranging for Marvin Gaye in the late 60s. The quartet launch into the allegro first movement with a steely focus, weaving a counterpoint around a terse oldtime gospel-flavored riff. Diffusely reflective figures, in the same vein as the Debussy string quartet, give way and then mingle with a bouncy forward drive fueled by Rodriguez. Perkinson’s subtle rhythmic shifts, up to an almost aching crescendo from the violins, are a treat.
The gospel allusions grow more distant in the adagio second movement, spiced with delicate pizzicato accents, fleeting pauses and a persistent, wistful reflection drifting on the wings of simple echo phrases. The allegro vivace conclusion is exactly that, with a muted, lilting joy that finally swoops down out of the clouds in a jubilant glissando from Fayette. It’s a translucent, fun piece that should be heard more frequently.
Next up is another terse triptych, William Grant Still’s Lyric Quartet. The use of simple, catchy blues-infused phrases and variations is similar to the album’s first piece, the group picking up with a Dvorakian blend of Americana and Eastern European chromatics in the first movement, an otherwise rather wistful portrait of a plantation – one would assume without slaves!
Movement two, a Peruvian mountainscape, is summery and even more minimalistically crafted. The third movement, presumably a portrait of an American pioneer encampment, captures an optimistic bustle as well as some deliciously fleeting chromatics.
The concluding and most challenging piece is the best-known one here, George Walker’s String Quartet No. 1. There’s a vivid, achingly Bartokian quality in the precise chromatics and sudden swells of the first movement. The molto adagio second – often played as a standalone Lyric For Strings – echoes Samuel Barber and gets a rewardingly meticulous, insightfully dynamic interpretation from the ensemble. Stormy striding motives juxtapose against moments of wary reflection in the concluding movement. Like the first two volumes in the Catalyst Quartet’s series, this has as much historical value as it does as sheer sophisticated entertainment.