in: Reviews

November 23, 2010

Parker Quartet’s Homecoming with Haydn

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Last night’s concert at Jordan Hall represented a successful homecoming for the Parker Quartet. Currently based in Minnesota as the Quartet-In-Residence with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the  Quartet, who received graduate training at the New England Conservatory, credits the Omni Parker House as inspiration for their name.  Indeed, after the concert, first violinist Daniel Chong spoke warmly of the Quartet’s time at NEC and Boston in general.

The concert was devoted to three of the sixty-eight quartets written by Joseph Haydn, father of the string quartet. Two of them, Op. 74, no. 3 and Op. 77, no. 2, were written in the 1790s at the height of Haydn’s popularity. The third, Op. 20, no. 2, belongs to an earlier group of quartets, in which Haydn was still seeking the right combination of ingredients.

The most notable aspect of last night’s performance, apart from the young age of the performers, was the lack of music stands. The technical act of memorizing these works –– though each one is a staple of the repertory –– is not only commendable but facilitated a greater sense of expression and communication throughout the evening. Furthermore, it contributed to the overwhelming sense of eavesdropping on a “conversation amongst equals,” to paraphrase Goethe’s description of the string quartet.

The first work on the program, Op. 20, no. 2, exemplified from the start equality in the voices. The cello, played by Kee-Hyun Kim, opens the movement, a heavy role reversal of the typical quartet texture, and quickly hands off the melodic material to the other voices. Haydn constructed this movement as a game of pairs: first the lower voices (i.e., the viola and cello) are set against the violins; later the outer voices (i.e., the first violin and cello) are pitted against the inner voices. The cello also opens the second movement, with a probing melody that gives lie to the persistent criticism that Haydn could not write lyrical music, and the third movement includes chromatic and drone-like pitches reminiscent of a bagpipe.

The fourth and final movement of the quartet, labeled “fuga a quatro Soggetti,” demonstrates Haydn’s interest in the forms of the past: whereas the fugue had  been the dominant form in the Baroque period, it still retained viability for Haydn over twenty years after Bach’s death. The Parker took to heart the tempo marking sempre sotto voce: their incredibly fast and quiet rendition of the movement kept the audience on the edge of their seats. Any musician knows that it is incredibly difficult to play fast and soft; often, such a passage can spiral out of control, but the Parker Quartet exerted a tight grip on the movement.

The second quartet, Op. 74, no. 3, is known as “The Rider” or “The Horseman” because of the jaunty rhythms in its outer movements. The first features a coy, chromatically-inflected first theme and a dance-like second theme, and the technical passages — especially the shifts to the highest registers — challenged both of the violinists. But the weight of the quartet lies in the second movement, which opens with a simple yet elegant four-part chorale. The subtle drama of this movement comes from the modal shift at its heart, and the Parker was careful not to overwork this moment. Daniel Chong’s handling of the later variation of the first theme was the supreme highlight of the evening.

The fugal nature of the third movement and its chromatically-descending theme counterbalanced the intense character of the preceding one. The fourth features a turn figure that propels the off-beat rhythm forward and a second theme with a more earthy, folk-like nature. Later in the movement, the second violin and viola, played by Karen Kim and Jessica Bodner respectively, provided lyrical outbursts that grounded the retransition and highlighted the hardworking, yet often overlooked inner voices of the string quartet.

The final quartet of the evening, Op. 77, no. 2, features Haydn’s typical attributes, while also casting an eye towards the past. In fact, the opening movement begins with an oddly orthodox texture. The first violin plays a strident and forthright first theme, and the members of the Parker were allowed to shine in the virtuosic solo and unison passages of the remaining somber material. The second movement is nominally a minuet, but, for all intents and purposes, feels like a scherzo. Haydn is clearly trying to deceive the listeners: in the first section, he includes accents on every other beat, even though the listener is expecting accents on every third beat; this hemiola creates a sense of tension or unease that the performers exploited for great effect. Later, the trio section appears in a harmony far removed from the original key. The reconciliation of these difficult passages garnered a few well-knowing laughs, as the audience appreciated the unusual and circuitous route back to the opening section.

The third movement begins simply enough: the first violin plays a thinly-decorated melody, while the cello provides an effortless baseline. The passagework becomes more complicated as each instrument takes a turn at the helm and the movement works towards its conclusion. At the climax of this movement, the performers were rewarded with a breathless silence that is so rare these days, when the audience is completely enthralled by a stunning performance. The fourth movement and the additional encore movement, the Scherzo from Op. 77, no. 1, emphasized not only the technical and athletic abilities of the Parker, but also their wide range of colors and emotions.

Despite the rare errant pitch or muffled attack, the Parker Quartet displayed last night the making of an excellent young quartet. The many technical passages received strong performances, mainly from first violinist Daniel Chong, and the ensemble work was anchored by violist Jessica Bodner’s attentive performance. The Parker Quartet will repeat parts of this program on December 3 at Amherst College.

Alex Ludwig holds a Ph. D. in Musicology from Brandeis University and is the Secretary of the Haydn Society of North America.

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