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Album of the Week: Catalyst Quartet, 'Uncovered Vol. 3: Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, George Walker, William Grant Still'

courtesy of the artist

Great music by Black composers appears with increasing regularity on concert programs, a long-overdue acknowledgment. Recordings, however, have been slower to catch up: too many works remain unrecorded, or constrained by limited budgets. Here we have three exceptional string quartets in only their second but now definitive recordings.

The Catalyst Quartet has been all about giving top-flight performances of deserving music previously excluded from the canon, notably with theirUncoveredproject, focusing on music by Black composers. Though the releases have all been since 2021 and the timing might suggest it, this was not a shift instigated by the Black Lives Matter movement; the quartet noticed a lull in inclusive programming following the discovery of Florence Price’s trove of unpublished works in her Chicago-suburb basement.

The quartet has bolstered their clout with big names on the recordings — clarinetist and Curtis faculty member Anthony McGill and pianist Stewart Goodyear performed on Uncovered Vol. 1, featuring Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s music, and Florence Price specialist Michelle Cann, the Eleanor Sokoloff Chair in Piano Studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, joined them for Uncovered Vol. 2. They’re on their own for Vol. 3, giving new voice to three pieces, each by a different composer: Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, George Walker, and William Grant Still.

Perkinson was a composer of many different styles of music — classical, jazz, pop and blues, to name a few. Born in New York, he was named, as one might infer, for Samuel Coleridge-Taylor by his musician mother, and studied music himself at the Manhattan School of Music. His String Quartet No. 1 is based on the spiritual “Calvary” (a melody also used by Price), though he noted that his intent was not to write something Black, rather just something from his own experience. He takes a simple idea, the opening melody of the title as sung in the spiritual, and leads it on a harmonic and rhythmic adventure through the piece. The gentle virtuosity of the quartet allows for a more detailed listen, intricate softer sections coming through crisply, and gives warmth to the parts where the melodies veer off in their own directions.

William Grant Still, called the “Dean of African American Composers” (in a nod to Aaron Copland), is the most famous name on this bill. While Perkinson and Walker wrote their quartets shortly after completing their educations, Still was already in his late 40s when he wrote his Lyric Quartette, and had consequently absorbed more of the world and its musical traditions. The work was originally titled Musical Portraits of Three Friends, the friends being a Native American, an Incan, and a settler in American colonial times — the movements are now titled “The Sentimental One,” “The Quiet One,” and “The Jovial One,” all accurate titles for the character of their music — the quartet brings into full bloom the aching longing of the first movement, the calm of the second, and the spirit of the third. It’s a beautiful and concise blend of Still’s own style informed by Black musical traditions and of those he learned during his career.

The final piece on the album, Walker’s String Quartet No. 1, might benefit the most from this new recording. This was his first major work; he would later lean quite heavily into more tonally adventurous 20th century harmony, but here the dissonance is often met with a rewarding resolution to something closer to traditional tonality, the quartet making these into cathartic moments while still rounding the edges of the thornier bits. There’s also a special connection to a much better-known piece: Samuel Barber’s Op. 11 string quartet is not well known as a whole, but the middle movement became his Adagio for Strings. Walker, in the same way, took the middle movement of this quartet and expanded it into his most famous work, the Lyric for Strings. (Walker and Barber had the same composition teacher when they studied at Curtis.)

Uncovered, Vol. 3 is another brick in the foundation long left unfinished after Antonin Dvořák relayed what he learned about the Negro spiritual from Harry T. Burleigh to his other colleagues, saying this was the true American music and should influence American composition. His advice left out the suggestion for audiences to simply listen to what Black composers were doing — a tough proposition in this country in that time, one that would continue to be unheeded as the 20th century progressed.

All three composers featured here would have been pleased with The Catalyst Quartet’s work, not just because it was well done, but because it can encourage more prominent ensembles to add this and other previously excluded music to their repertoire — and not just in February, or in response to a tragedy. We’ve previously tended to incorporate longevity and visibility into our definitions of greatness, but here we have an opportunity to simply trust our ears.

John T.K. Scherch (JohnTK@wrti.org) shares the morning’s musical and other offerings weekdays on WRTI 90.1. Previously, he was the first new host on WBJC in Baltimore in nearly 20 years, hosting the evening, Sunday afternoon, and request programs, and he is also an alumnus of U92, the college radio station of West Virginia University and a consecutive national Station of the Year winner.