On Tuesday night (September 21st) artificial acoustics of the Tsai Performance Center did not prevent the members of Muir String Quartet from delivering performances marked by authenticity of feeling, intensity of sound, and unity of purpose. Now in its 32nd season, the ensemble opened the first half with Haydn’s Quartet in G minor, H. III:74, “The Rider,” followed by Janácek’s Quartet No. 1, “After Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata.” The second half of the program was Dvorák’s monumental (and lengthy) Quartet in C Major, Op. 61.
Haydn’s “The Rider” is of almost symphonic proportions with respect to expressive breadth, dramatic contrasts, highly involved textures and sheer size. Having received its name because of galloping rhythms of the outer movements, it foreshadows quartets of Beethoven and those who followed him due to its highly involved instrumental writing and emotional intensity. In the Muir’s performance that emphasized this gaze towards the 19th century, especially striking was the hymn-like Largo assai (2nd movement). It attained heightened expression through the use of their almost senza vibrato approach to sound, mellifluous blending between the four instruments, and an interior quality that drew the listener towards the music rather than projecting it into the hall. In the Finale, which combines “street music” (replete with gypsy-like um-pa accompaniments) and “lofty” material to create a movement full of surprises, the Muirs exhibited unhinged virtuosity and employed dramatic timing to underscore the ever-present sense of suspense. If on occasion exactitude was sacrificed for the sake of audacity of gesture, at no point was the musical intent obscured.
While the music of both Janácek and Dvorák is often grounded in strong nationalistic roots, in his C Major Quartet the latter looks toward the Viennese classicism of Beethoven and Schubert, while the former uses folk material only once, in the form of a somewhat vulgar-sounding ditty — and even then in a mocking fashion, as if to expose the country life (the setting of Tolstoy’s novella), which, while tranquil and wholesome on the outside, breeds dark and unwholesome feelings. In Dvorák’s case, the Viennese influence is perhaps due to the fact that the quartet was commissioned by Joseph Hellmesberger, then director of Vienna Conservatory, following the great success of Dvorák’s Slavonic Rhapsody No. 3 which was performed in that city by the Philharmonic Orchestra. In the case of Janácek, there seems to be an intent to forsake folk material as it would not have permitted him to express the sinister, almost perverse undertones of Tolstoy’s drama of deceit and murder.
In their performance of the Janácek, the Muirs captured the foreboding quality of the first movement, the quick shifts between sustained, dance-like and eerie sul ponticello episodes of the second, and desperate outcries of the third and fourth. Listening to these last two movements one wonders whether then sixty-year-old Janácek, in addition to Tolstoy’s story and his own unrequited love for the young Kamila Stösslová, was influenced (as much music of the period) by the desolation of the post-WWI Europe.
The Dvorák quartet is a vehicle for virtuosity and the Muir Quartet proved to be up to the task. Lucia Lin, Steven Ansell and Michael Reynolds, playing 2nd violin, viola and cello, respectively, exhibited intensity and terseness of sound and expression in what can be referred to as mini-solos for these instruments. The first violin, played by Peter Zazofsky, has a number of solo passages of which the melancholy melody that opens and closes the Adagio was most moving for this writer. The Muirs brought a sense of stillness to the quiet episode preceding the coda of the first movement and an ethereal, disembodied quality to the Adagio where perfect simultaneity of punctuated pianissimo chords before the closing theme of the movement disclosed the ensemble’s many years of collaboration. Before the closing of the Finale Dvorák lapses into what can only be termed Straussian chromatic meandering and the Muirs took full pleasure in delaying the inevitable approach of the final resolution.