Always a bridesmaid, never the bride — Fred Lerdahl has had three compositions chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in music, but he has never won. In 2010, the nod went to the American composer’s third string quartet, rounding out a string quartet cycle that received its world premiere, as a complete set, at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon. The group that played it, the Daedalus Quartet, released a recording of the cycle last fall, on the Bridge Records label.
Well, half of its members did, that is. Since making that recording, this rising quartet has taken on a new second violinist and cellist. Lerdahl’s complicated style, mathematical in form and extremely virtuosic in its demands, is not something one would expect new members to pick up quickly. Indeed, second violinist Matilda Kaul, who has a background in historically informed performance ensembles, sounded a little tentative. The ensemble did not seem quite as tight, in spite of some bravura individual playing.
Lerdahl, an authority on the generative theory of tonal music who teaches composition at Columbia University, created the three string quartets as one long example of expanding variations technique or spiral form.
No. 1 begins with a single open fifth on G that is elaborated rhythmically and harmonically, with each variation growing longer and more complex, until the last one takes up the entire third quartet. If you think that a performance of these pieces would be like listening to a math equation, you would be partly right. There is moody, coloristic appeal to many sections of the work, especially in the striking opening of the third quartet, but overall the idea is stronger than the execution.
Downey is a freelance writer.