The Daedalus String Quartet’s first outing at Rockport Music’s Shalin Liu Performance Center on June 24 (they have appeared in earlier years at the old venue across the street) was also the occasion for a rare public appearance by pianist Andrew Rangell. In a refreshing blend of the familiar, the unfamiliar and the new, the program featured works by Mozart, Janácek, Dohnányi and Richard Wernick.
The concert began with a fluent and spirited reading of Mozart’s final string quartet, no. 23 in F major, K. 590, one of the three he completed of a projected set of six commissioned by King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, a gifted amateur cellist–thus the occasional sobriquet “cello” quartets, on account of the greater than usual prominence of the King’s instrument. The DQ, on this occasion comprising regular first violinist Min-Young Kim, violist Jessica Thompson, and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, and guest second violinist Aaron Boyd (substituting for Ara Gregorian), cut a perfect middle ground between emphasizing the erudition of Mozart’s conception and the palpable fun and tomfoolery of his execution. The first movement combined delicacy and jocularity, the latter chiefly abetted by Ramakrishnan’s mugging, body English, and crisp and pointed phrasing. The ensemble obviously enjoyed tossing the melodic footballs back and forth, and Boyd, who is concertmaster of the Arizona Symphony and who only sat in with DQ on a couple of weeks’ notice — and only rehearsed with them since the prior Tuesday — sounded as if he had been playing with them forever, so attuned was he to their repartee. They gave a proto-Schubertian turn to the dappled songfulness of the slow movement and reveled in the sophisticated rustications of the minuet. They then gave free rein to the start-and-stop, loud-and-soft goofiness and even barnyard coarseness (this, for a king?) of the finale, with which Mozart covered myriad contrapuntal complexities.
The first half closed with a performance of Richard Wernick’s 2010 String Quartet No. 8, which the DQ commissioned after having worked with Wernick on earlier performances. There’s a long and convoluted story behind the personal and professional connections between the composer, the DQ as an ensemble, and two of its members, but suffice it to say that in the end this quartet was commissioned on behalf of DQ by the communities of Bay Shore and Islip on New York’s Long Island and was dedicated in memory of Bay Shore’s high school music director, Howard Koch, with whom all concerned had worked at various times.
Although Wernick, a distinguished 77-year-old Pulitzer winner (1977) who has garnered many other prizes and awards — and who may be the most famous composer you’ve never heard of —had begun writing his eighth quartet before the Bay Shore grant came through, its memorial quality is reflected in its two slow movements, positioned second and fourth (of four). If we can generalize from a single work, Wernick’s voice is that of an orthodox modernist who, somewhat like Andrew Imbrie, espouses a lyrical atonality that respects the formal coherence of the European musical tradition.
The brief opening movement is toccata-like, featuring sustained notes and phrases over gnarly but fully intelligible rapid passages. The second movement, styled a chaconne, states its fundamental tune in the cello, where it reappears periodically under the variations, though there were times when it was either omitted or engulfed; nor were the variations exactly pellucid. This is plainly music that withholds much from the first hearing, despite its familiar structure. There are nevertheless some wonderful moments, often those where instruments complete each other’s sentences, as it were (throughout this piece Wernick demonstrates his mastery of quartet writing as colloquy in the grand old manner). There follows what Wernick cheekily calls a minuet, a very short movement that began life as a piano variation on Diabelli’s waltz that spawned Beethoven’s massive variation set. Needless to say, there was virtually nothing left of Diabelli in Wernick’s variation, and nothing whatever of Beethoven, as the composer fought against the 3/4 meter in this ephemeral and amusing romp. The finale picked up melodic strands from the second movement, this time in a more obviously developmental way, creating an atmospheric piece somewhat in the spirit of Bartók’s “night music” movements. There are particularly effective and affecting moments of near silence, with crystalline harmonics, and eerie twitterings (of the analog sort).
We pause to remark not only on the obvious dedication and skill of DQ brought to this work, but their sumptuous tone and shapely phrasing. While it’s a bit unfair to single out members of ensembles as organic as string quartets, we were notably impressed with violist Thompson’s rich sonority and fine portamento.
After intermission the quartet got to rest a bit while guest pianist Andrew Rangell took a solo turn with Leos Janácek’s In the Mists, an evocative four-movement suite that gave Rangell ample scope for his highly individual interpretive approach. Rangell, who not only during but also after his recovery from debilitating wrist injuries has cut back on his live concert appearances, is a near-legendary artist of both prodigious technique and enormous inner resource. We know there are pianists famous for quirkiness —think Russell Sherman, Glenn Gould and Peter Serkin — but while one tends to think that every oddity in their performances is backed by stacks of footnotes, Rangell is a throwback to the days of the poet-musician, to Liszt, Gottschalk and Nyíregyházi. He carries on a dialogue with the piano or the composer, displaying more tics than anyone we can think of this side of Oscar Levant. His touch is like iron, and sometimes his dynamics, as in the first of the four Janácek pieces, ran a little on the loud side, but his pedaling was fairly restrained except as he brilliantly cut off a phrase but left one lingering note of a chord. These pieces, not exactly standard rep but not as unfamiliar as the program note suggests, sometimes sounded a bit more New Agey than misty, but they get under the skin. Rangell drew from them as much inner Janácek as we have heard in this work.
The concluding work, the Ernö (or Ernst von) Dohnányi Piano Quintet in E-flat minor, op. 26 — which is is Dohnányi’s second for this ensemble, though not so identified in the program — saw Rangell in a much more constrained, duly collaborative mode.
In writing about the composer’s first quintet last year, we noted that the composer took a more orthodox Central European approach than his slightly younger colleagues Bartók and Kodály, and while that remained the case in the Second Quintet, he narrowed the gap considerably. Written in 1914, it might well have been influenced by Bartók’s quintet of ten years earlier. The harmonic idiom is richly chromatic, the Hungarian (or at least “gypsy” — modern scholarship seems to have eschewed any strong dichotomy between Magyar and Roma music) inflections much more prevalent within the Viennese ambience. The opening is deep and dark, with lots for everyone to dig into (and they did!). The second movement is a Viennese waltz written as if it had been a csárdás (traditional Hungarian folk dance), with alternating slow and faster pacing. The finale opens with a bit of somber counterpoint, then flowers out into another intense and meaty essay with strong Hungarian inflections, coming to rest, finally, on a gentle major mode cadence. The performances by Daedalus and Rangell were first-rate, powerful, nuanced, and persuasive.