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Signum Classics are proud to release the Smith Quartet's debut disc on Signum Records—Different Trains. The disc contains three of Steve Reich's most inspiring works: Triple Quartet for three string quartets, Reich’s personal dedication to the late Yehudi Menuhin, Duet, and the haunting Different Trains for string quartet and electronic tape.
The initial inspiration for the piece comes from the last movement of Bartók’s Fourth Quartet. While no musical material is taken from the Bartók, its energy was my starting point. While working on Triple Quartet, two other composers found their way into my consciousness. As I was beginning the piece my friend Betty Freeman sent me a CD of the complete Schnittke string quartets. I had never heard a note of his music. In listening to his quartets I was struck by his virtuosity and moved by the incredible Mesto of his Second Quartet. Listening to the ‘density’ of his music goaded me to thicken my own plot harmonically and melodically. Rhythmically, the second and third quartets play in conflicting values partly inspired by Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare. The result, all in all, is a piece considerably fore dissonant and expressionistic than expected.
The piece is in three movements (fast-slow-fast) and is organized harmonically on four dominant chords in minor keys a minor third apart: E minor, G minor, B flat minor, C sharp minor, and then returning to E minor to form a cycle. The first movement goes through this harmonic cycle twice with a section about one minute long on each of the four dominant chords. The result is a kind of variation form.
Rhythmically the first movement has the second and third quartet playing interlocking chords while the first quartet plays longer melodies in canon between the first violin and viola against the second violin and cello.
The slow movement is more completely contrapuntal with a long slow melody in canon eventually in all 12 voices. It stays in E minor throughout.
The third movement resumes the original fast tempo and maintains the harmonic chord cycle, but modulates back and forth between keys more rapidly. The final section of the movement is in the initial key of E minor, and there the piece finally cadences.
Triple Quartet was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, David A and Evelyne T Lennette, Patricia Unterman and Tim Savinar, and Meet the Composer/Arts Endowment Commissioning Music/USA, which is made possible by generous support from the Helen F. Whitaker Fund, and the Catherine Filene Shouse Foundation.
Duet was composed in 1994 and is dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin and to those ideals of international understanding which Sir Yehudi practiced throughout his life. The piece is approximately five minutes in length. In this version performed by the Smith Quartet it is scored for two solo violins four violas and four celli. Beginning and ending in F the music is built around simple unison canons between the two violins who, from time to time, slightly vary the rhythmic distance between their two voices.
Duet was commissioned by the Gstaad Festival for Yehudi Menuhin and The Gstaad Festival Orchestra.
Different Trains, for String Quartet and pre-recorded performance tape, begins a new way of composing that has its roots in my early tape pieces It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966). The basic idea is that carefully chosen speech recordings generate the musical materials for musical instruments.
The idea for the piece came from my childhood. When I was one year old my parents separated. My mother moved to Los Angeles and my father stayed in New York. Since they arranged divided custody, I travelled back and forth by train frequently between New York and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942 accompanied by my governess. While the trips were exciting and romantic at the time I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains. With this in mind I wanted to make a piece that would accurately reflect the whole situation. In order to prepare the tape I did the following:
1. Record my governess Virginia, then in her seventies, reminiscing about our train trips together.
2. Record a retired Pullman porter, Lawrence Davis, then in his eighties, who used to ride lines between New York and Los Angeles, reminiscing about his life.
3. Collect recordings of Holocaust survivors Rachella, Paul and Rachel, all about my age and then living in America—speaking of their experiences.
4. Collect recorded American and European train sounds of the ’30s and ’40s.
In order to combine the taped speech with the string instruments I selected small speech samples that are more or less clearly pitched and then notated them as accurately as possible in musical notation.
The strings then literally imitate that speech melody. The speech samples as well as the train sounds were transferred to tape with the use of sampling keyboards and a computer. Three separate string quartets are also added to the pre-recorded tape and the final live quartet part is added in performance.
Different Trains is in three movements (played without pause), although that term is stretched here since tempos change frequently in each movement. They are:
1. America: Before the war
2. Europe: During the war
3. After the war
The piece thus presents both a documentary and a musical reality and begins a new musical direction. It is a direction that I expect will lead to a new kind of documentary music video theatre in the not too distant future.
Again all parts on this recording are played by the Smith Quartet. Different Trains was commissioned by Betty Freeman for the Kronos Quartet.
Steve Reich © 2005
Steve Reich © 2005