in: Reviews

June 8, 2010

Unusual Arrangement by String Quartet, Harpsichord Effective in Bach Concerto

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The most important musical thing to note about this string quartet concert, the inaugural of the Collins Family Memorial Concerts, was that it was delivered on gut strings with period bows. A lively crowd enjoyed it in the chapel of First Church Boston at 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, June 6.

An excellent ad hoc string quartet (Tatiana Daubek, Marika Holmqvist, violins; Karina Fox, viola; Colleen McCary-Smith, cello) delivered the goods, with Paul Cienniwa as harpsichord soloist in the Bach Harpsichord Concerto in A Major. The rest of the program consisted of the Haydn Quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4 (Hob. III:34) and the Mozart Quartet in G Major (K. 387), “Spring.”

First up was the Haydn, the most popular of the six quartets that make up Op. 20. From the unisons without vibrato, this listener could tell that this was an unusual musical experience. On gut strings, chords delivered without vibrato have a certain pungency that is delicious. The variations of the minor mode second movement, marked “Un poco adagio e affettuoso,” were distinguished by gestures and a sighing motive shared among the four instruments. The next “Menuet alla Zingarese” movement features furious gypsy rhythms in upper and lower voices giving way to a steady 3/4 cello solo over upper strings.

The finale “Presto e scherzando” continues the gypsy flavor — the Hungarian gypsy scale is a regular harmonic minor scale with raised 4th and 7th degrees — but with all sorts of flashy inventions with a surprising quiet ending.

Cienniwa joined the group for the Bach concerto (BWV 1055), for which the band picked up Baroque bows, eschewing the torque bows that they used for the two classical quartets. The instrumentalists were placed in front of the harpsichord width-wise in the unusually shaped chapel (there are no right angles.) Any fears that the harpsichord would be swamped were instantly dispelled by the jolly opening movement. The A Major ending chord was particularly outstanding in this arrangement.

The minor mode middle movement, “Larghetto”, was particularly affecting with its sighing motive in the strings. The finale, “Allegro ma non tanto,” with its prominent downbeats answered by the full harpsichord, was a joyous romp.

Mozart’s “Spring” quartet is the first of six quartets dedicated to Haydn, who is generally considered the father of the modern string quartet. The first violin here was Holmqvist, who ceded her second role to Daubek; this would never have happened in an established string quartet. This Mozart quartet is distinguished by its heavy use of chromaticism throughout. The theme of the “Molto allegro” finale is based on four notes treated fugally, a technique that Mozart may have learned from the last movement of Haydn’s Symphony 23. In the midst of all this counterpoint, Mozart chooses to insert an operatic section. The long “Minuetto” second movement, in the home key of G Major, is answered by a minor trio section. This fascinating quartet is full of such felicities.

The concert series is sponsored by the Collins Family Memorial Fund organized by Dr. Leo Collins, longtime music director at First Church in Boston, The Rev. L. Willkie Collins, Leo’s father, led the family’s interest in music.  Leo Collins has done so much for music in Boston since he came here in 1958. In his early years as music director, all music funds at First Church were directed to service music. So Collins founded and was first conductor of the Cantata Singers, to give outside concerts. Paul Cienniwa is continuing that tradition but is focusing the repertoire on the harpsichord.

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

2 Comments

  1. Mr. Phillips, thank you very much for your complimentary review of our group’s performance this past weekend. It’s especially gratifying to have our historical performance practice details noticed and appreciated. I would just like to point out, however, that trading of the first violin position is hardly without precedent – the very established Emerson String Quartet, for example, shares the position between the two violinists and makes a practice of switching within the context of a single concert.

    Comment by Marika Holmqvist — June 9, 2010 at 8:52 am

  2. And we should further clarify that, while the musicians may have played with torque, their Classic bows were in the style of François Tourte.

    Comment by Paul Cienniwa — June 9, 2010 at 4:46 pm

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