in: Reviews

August 13, 2012

Monadnock Quartet Program Fine, But No Triptych

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Dublin chapel by Andrews and Jaques ca. 1885

The Dublin Emmanuel Church is a gem of a seasonal chapel on the grounds (but not part) of the Dublin School in Dublin, New Hampshire. On August 11th, an evening fraught with thunderstorms that pummeled the roof, adding heaven’s applause to what emanated from within, the final concert of this season’s Monadnock Music series offered up the second performance by the purpose-created Monadnock Quartet (Gabriela Diaz and Charles Dimmick, violins, Wenting Kang, viola, and Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello) and soprano Teresa Wakim. The program ran from Vivaldi to Virgil Thomson; an interesting one as presented, but we were seriously bummed that the Vivaldi stood in for the originally promised Triptych by Arthur Shepherd. Well, as Red Sox fans used to say, wait till next year, maybe.

The packed hot and sticky house was not left to ponder its discomfort for long. The opening work, Mozart’s quartet transcription of his Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546 (those keeping the box score will note that the two-piano original is K. 426), was a riveting performance of a fascinating oddity in Mozart’s output, a genuine blending of, well, Mozartean classicism and Bachian counterpoint. The quartet gave it a sonorous yet lucid reading, each player (and especially Popper-Keizer) rendering an orotund tone while keeping each line perceptibly independent.

Another slightly uncharacteristic work followed, the String Quartet No. 2 (1931) by Virgil Thomson, which in 1972 (!) he arranged and orchestrated as his Third Symphony. What sets this very effective, well-constructed and engaging work (as well as his other work on the program) apart from a lot of Thomson’s œuvre is the almost total absence of his characteristic mocking attitude. The opening movement presents its key materials, chiefly an ingeniously interlocked set of arpeggiated triads featuring a down-up motto motif, and lays them out in a well-planned, engrossing and comprehensible sonata structure. Its lines are as exposed as any in Haydn or Mozart, and the Mondadnock Quartet elucidated them with an extra dollop of expressivity, headed by the lovely singing tones of Diaz and Dimmick. The Scherzo carries most of the joshing in the piece, being one of Thomson’s goofy Midwestern waltzes, with phrases that go on just a bit too long, like ankles and feet sticking out from hand-me-down trousers. Thomson’s game in this quartet is revealed in the Trio, where the down-up motto recurs and announces its role as a unifying device, as it is for the rest of the work. The slow movement, as simple and heartfelt as anything gets in Thomson, has moments of dissonant intensity reminding one that this is, indeed, a 20th-century work. The finale is surprisingly not whiz-bang, but a mostly gentle and Mozartean turn with some suggestively Ivesian elements, harmonies going, as Thomson liked to put it, in and out of focus. Thomson considered this a breakthrough piece in his development, and his autobiography expressed miffed puzzlement that it didn’t receive a strong reception at first. The Monadnock Quartet made a powerful case for it, performing it at least as well as any recording you can find.

The first half ended with Vivaldi’s motet In furore iustissimae irae, RV 626 (ca. 1720), consisting of two arias separated by a recitative, and topped off with an Alleluia. The music is quintessential Vivaldi, starting with a sinfonia that could fit into any of his minor-mode concerti. The first aria, in similar stormy vein, features wide melodic leaps, furious melismas and high drama, all of which Wakim delivered with assurance and panache. Her intonation was solid, her articulation remarkably precise, and her ornamentation was dynamically subtle and brilliantly judged. We missed hearing the Shepherd, but this was first-rate Baroque singing. The short recitative and slower second aria gave ample scope to Wakim’s expressive powers, which were as abundant as her high drama in the opening aria. The concluding Alleluia was light-bodied and frothy. The quartet provided subdued and sensitive support in the vocal movements. The slow aria is notable for its near-total exclusion of the cello, which permitted Kang’s full-bodied tone to carry the bass line.

The second half began with Thomson’s brief Stabat Mater (1932), based not on the traditional liturgical text but on a rhapsodic and eccentric poem by Max Jacob, in which Mary, Jesus, and an angel converse without any clear indication of who is speaking at any point. Jacob, raised Jewish in Quimper, France, converted to Catholicism after having a vision of Jesus when Jacob was 33 (Jesus’ age at his crucifixion—coincidence?). Colorful historical detail: Picasso was godfather at Jacob’s baptism. Raised Baptist but by 1930 agnostic at most, Thomson reported that after composing the setting, he went for a walk, lay on a grassy hill and was overcome by trembling. The work has been one of Thomson’s most popular (it was his first published work), and it, too, is free from any hint of satire. It also presented something of a challenge to Thomson musically: he is well known for his rhythmically precise setting of English texts, but Jacob’s poem is in French, and as a result there is a whiff of Fauré in the prosody. Wakim’s reading was reasonably idiomatic, though her pronunciation was not as lucid as with the Latin of Vivaldi. Her tone in this very different style was appropriately full and dark, while the quartet’s accompaniment was richly Romantic.

The evening concluded with Ravel’s Quartet in F Major (1903), which either despite or because of its initial rejection by the solons and salons of the Conservatoire and by its dedicatee Fauré, has become one of the most performed quartets in the repertoire. (Debussy, it must be noted, loved it from the get-go.) Everybody plays it; everybody has recorded it; all serious string players have it under their fingers. That said, this quartet performed it as well as any we can remember hearing, whether live or recorded. These players, thrown together over a couple of weeks, sounded like they had played together for 20 years. The ensemble was perfect, their tone smooth as… Mylar, and their intonation, especially considering the suffocating humidity, was impeccable. If someone applied a full nelson and demanded something critical, we might say that the trio of the second-movement Scherzo could have used more forward momentum; but that’s it. We hope this ad-hoc ensemble manages to stick together beyond the confines of the Monadnock Festival.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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