in: Reviews

December 4, 2009

Chiara Quartet Scales Mt. Beethoven

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The Chiara Quartet, comprising Rebecca Fischer and Julie Yoon, violins, Jonah Sirota, viola, and Gregory Beaver, cello, have chosen to commemorate their tenth anniversary as an ensemble in their two-year residency as Blodgett Artists at Harvard — a program itself celebrating its quarter-century — with their first cycle of the Beethoven quartets. They embarked on their ascent of Mt. Beethoven on December 2 at Paine Hall before a packed house. Their opening program selected works from all three of Beethoven’s creative periods, starting with his final effort in this medium, the op. 135, followed by the op. 18 no. 4 and ending with the epochal first Razumovsky quartet, op. 59 no. 1.

The Chiara is a young group, both as an ensemble and as individual performers (all in their early 30s). Like many such ensembles, they have made a mark in contemporary music and are now building their street cred in the standard repertoire. In their efforts to establish their brand they have hit on a Concept, which they call “Chamber Music in Any Chamber”; that is, they embrace unconventional venues, such as clubs, cafés, malls, galleries and so forth, extending their audience somewhat after the fashion of the Kronos Quartet. Their success at this would be a distinctly good thing, as the large crowd at the traditional auditorium that is Paine Hall was of a grayer hue than augurs well for the genre.

Of the Chiara’s performances on this occasion it can be said that they are on track not only to reach the summit of this particular range, but to establish themselves in due but not-too-distant course at or near the top of the list of eminent quartets. The Quartet #15, the op. 135, does not on its surface exhibit the experimentalism or architectural profundity of its immediate predecessors, but like the Eighth Symphony absorbs all of this and cloaks it in the simpler garb of traditional forms and procedures. The Chiara’s reading emphasized the playful qualities of the first movement, the alternating delicacy and ebullience of the scherzo, the long-breathed lines of the Lento — in this movement especially, they sounded like a group that has been together thirty years, not ten — and, after its solemn introduction, the high spirits of the “hard-won” finale. Their dynamic control and shaping are exceptional; they love to build a phrase from ground up.

The op. 18 no. 4 was also, despite being in Beethoven’s favorite minor key of C minor, taken as a bit of highly intellectual sport: cellist Beaver was evidently enjoying the reverses and inversions of the I-V-I sequences in the first movement. This early quartet features, like the much later Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, a somewhat up-tempo slow movement, here marked Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto. The Chiara here seemed more interested in the scherzoso than the andante, or even the allegretto. The nominal minuet was played all grim and intense, like Mozart’s 40th Symphony, and the finale quite gruffly, perhaps a bit more rough-hewn than it needed to be.

The Razumovsky #1 filled the second half of the program, as well it should, this weighty tome — despite its deceptively rusticated finale — standing as a landmark in the development of the string quartet. To this work the Chiara brought all the best features of their playing in the first half — wonderful handling of the lines, careful crafting of dynamics and phrasing, emphasis on both the pathos and drama of the slow movement.

While their interpretive and ensemble playing were of exceptionally high quality, the Chiara still has a few hurdles to clear. The biggest issue this correspondent noted was dynamic balance, as distinct from dynamic structure. Ms. Yoon has a warm, rich, tone, but her arm is not matching Ms. Fischer’s in output (that said, where the two have parallel passages, they are splendid). The Chiara also adopts the seating arrangement that places the viola on the outside facing the first violin. While it’s really nice to hear the viola projecting, at times Mr. Sirota overplayed his hand, as it were.

One should not, with this group, dwell on quibbles: they are unquestionably going to build on their early success and make a major name for themselves. We greatly look forward to hearing them move through the rest of the Beethoven oeuvre, and hope we’ll get to hear them locally in an even wider variety of repertoire, perhaps in some of those knees-up venues.

Note: The Chiara is playing at The Lily Pad, 1353 Cambridge Street in Cambridge, at 7 p.m. on Sunday night (Dec. 6). Link Here

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.

2 Comments

  1. Mr. Koven’s review and the program notes both leave the impression that the Opus 135 SQ is number 15. As Pythagoras once said, let’s do the math: Opus 18 contains 6 quartets…opus 59, 3…then you have the “Harp” Quartet #10…the “Serioso” Quartet # 11 that students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia had to study whether they were piano, brass, woodwind or voice students, according to the NY Times…then the “Eroica”-length quartets 12, 13 and 14. The “Grosse Fugue” that originally ended #13 got outsourced to a standalone quartet-movement, so the Opus 135 should be the SIXTEENTH it appears to me.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — December 5, 2009 at 3:00 pm

  2. Ooops..I left off the A-minor Quartet opus 132, which IS the 15th in order of publication. How could I forget: the NY Times just ran a review of a combined reading of T. S. Eliot poetry inspired by this work, followed by a performance of the quartet itself.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — December 6, 2009 at 4:59 pm

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