Saturday night’s return by the Lydian String Quartet – Daniel Stepner and Judith Eissenberg, violins, Mary Ruth Ray, viola, and Joshua Gordon, cello – to the Kalliroscope Gallery in Groton (MA) was both confirmation and reaffirmation of what we should already know – that they compose one of the foremost chamber ensembles here or anywhere.
There were no creampuffs in the March 27 program of quartets by Beethoven (Opus 127), Fauré (Opus 121) and Thomas Oboe Lee’s Morango – Almost a Tango. Each poses its own set of styles and challenges, from the fiercely virtuosic to the intonationally and rhythmically demanding.
Beethoven’s Quartet in E flat, Op. 127, was the first of the composer’s last quartets and, like the others, seems to play in a larger universe than the earlier quartets. The forms are familiar, but the dynamic ranges are wider, loud-soft changes are often sudden, the meters are more varied and the instrumental parts can be daunting, individually and collectively. Interestingly, the task for the players is not so much in meeting the technical challenges as in avoiding too grand a statement of the content and the risk of losing control.
The Lydians, who are in the last phases of recording Beethoven’s final quartets, know the dangers very well. The opening chords of the Allegro maestoso were robust and sonorous, and the lyric sections of the Adagio were tenderly romantic above the staccato accompaniment. The players guided the energy of the outer movements, rather than letting it drive them, while pulling the many thematic elements lines and into a cohesive whole. Even at close range, the work was expertly woven; not a seam showed.
Gabriel Fauré’s E minor Quartet, Op. 121, was his very last work before his death in 1924. Some regard it as a sort of retrospect of his earlier life and work, but while it is unmistakably Fauré, it goes beyond his more familiar works in its harmonic reach and melodic subtlety. For that reason, it is perhaps less distinctive and certainly less popular than his piano quartets. The Lydians’ job here was to bring forth its lyric qualities and weave its polyphony to maximize its musical intent for the audience. This is something the Lydians excel in doing, and they accomplished their mission well.
Thomas Oboe Lee was born in China but gained his musical footing in Brazil, where he spent his early life. Though he has lived the last 30 years in the U.S., much of his music, by now well known, looks towards Brazilian/Latin dance idioms as well as jazz. The Morango – Almost a Tango is his best-known work, widely played and much enjoyed Saturday by the Lydian Quartet and the audience alike. Lighter and “friendlier” in nature than the preceding pieces, it was given the uplifting energy and rhythmic identity to bring out the tango flavor in a somewhat ethereal, almost mystical context – a great concluding work, especially in the hands of the four Lydians.