in: Reviews

April 24, 2010

Beethoven Quartets from Chiara Stylistically Convincing, Sensitive

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Braving wind and weather, an enthusiastic crowd gathered in Paine Hall, Harvard University, on Friday, April 9 for the third concert in the Chiara Quartet’s two-season series devoted to the complete string quartets of Beethoven. Each concert presents a work from Beethoven’s chronologically distinct early, middle, and late periods.

Opus 18, no. 1, composed in 1799 and revised in 1800, although not the first of the group in order of composition, was selected by Beethoven to head the six quartets published as Opus 18 in 1801, perhaps because it seemed to him the most weighty and adventurous. The Chiara players made the most of its terse signature motive, heard in unison in the hushed opening, then gaining in intensity as it permeates the entire first movement. Dynamics are crucial to the expanding range of expression as the movement unfolds. The Chiara players made Beethoven’s sudden accents and sharp contrasts sound completely natural and spontaneous. In the aria-like second movement Adagio, first violinist Rebecca Fischer’s beautiful tone and nuanced phrasing came to the fore, with equally sensitive playing by Julie Yoon, second violin, Jonah Sirota, viola, and Gregory Beaver, cello. The Scherzo’s intricate rhythms and metric jolts were tossed off at lightning speed with virtuosic panache, with equally virtuosic ensemble work in the Allegro Finale

The quartet in F minor, Opus 95 (“Serioso”), with its terse major-minor opening was described by Beethoven as “written for a small circle of connoisseurs.” Hardly ingratiating, the first movement is remarkable for its concentrated thematic material and furious contrasts throughout. The Chiara players’ sense of timing kept up the relentless pace, while savoring the occasional  lyrical moment. The leisurely counterpoint of the second movement brought a welcome change  of mood, followed by a return to urgency and violent contrast in the third movement and finale.

With the quartet in E-flat major, Opus 127, the first of the late quartets, we were in another world altogether. Opening with a massive chordal gesture that reappears at the beginning of the development and again towards its end in a “false recapitulation” in the “wrong” key of C major, the movement is a study in avoided contrasts. Themes come and go, hardly announcing themselves as they move from one voice to another. Here the Chiara’s seamless coordination was paramount, so that they seemed to function as a single instrument. The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo e molto cantabile, was taken at a slightly faster tempo than sometimes heard, a performance decision that preserved the 12/8 meter as four-beats-to-a-measure and effectively presented the variation theme as a singable (cantabile) melody throughout its elaborate textural permutations and transformations of character. The Scherzando vivace, introduced by pizzicato chords that humorously recall the opening of the first movement, was played with the grotesque perversity it deserves and, in the mercurial Trio, at lightning speed. The Finale, marked by fiercely dissonant opening octaves, was a medley of folk like tunes that followed one another in rapid succession to a breathtaking conclusion.

The Chiara Quartet are Blodgett Artists-in-Residence in residence at Harvard through 2011. Setting new standards for stylistically convincing and sensitive playing, this dynamic young ensemble is living proof that the venerable art of chamber music playing is alive and well.

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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