Lawrence Lesser’s NEC First Monday series, which offers consistently compelling performances by New England Conservatory — faculty, students and alums — featured a joint venture between the Parker and Jupiter Quartets, both mid-2000s alumni of Paul Katz’s Professional String Quartet Program.
After a fifteen-minute introduction by Messers Lesser and Katz, the music began with the Parker String Quartet’s offering of the rather light Haydn Quartet in C Major, op. 74, no 1 sparklingly played, especially by Daniel Chong, the first violinist. The balance was appropriate, if you like first-violin-driven ensembles, and Chong’s pitch rode a few cents high now and again, carrying him further above his colleagues. Given the geniality and relative uncomplicatedness of the piece, a touch of eccentricity in phrasing was not unwelcome, and occasional gestures by the supporting members added humor. Some of the idiosyncratic parts were perhaps over-contrasted, insofar as they are naturally prominent and don’t have to be underscored in this way; some of the luftpausen (and slowing down at junctures of phrases to the point of total work stoppage) may have struck some as a bit mannered in this powdered-wig Haydn.
It would be unfair to compare the two groups based on the works they performed on this occasion, but the Jupiter Quartet seemed singularly well matched to Beethoven’s both blustering and introspective String Quartet in c-sharp minor, op. 131. The players gave a compelling and tasteful rendition— the structure of the work well brought out without any sacrifice of its emotionality, which was given robust emphasis. Indeed, I have permission to quote from an overheard conversation between two members of the famed (and regrettably former) Cleveland Quartet. Said cellist Paul Katz to first violinist Don Weilerstein, of the Jupiter’s Beethoven: “They have the real quartet sound, and they played that [Beethoven op 131] better than we ever did.”
After intermission Chong motored the combined forces through a youthfully exuberant rendering of Mendelssohn’s youthfully exuberant Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20. Speed and visceral excitement sometimes prevailed over clarity from my balcony seat, but any doubts were carried away by the performance and I was impelled to put down my pen, close my eyes, and revel.