The Miro Quartet, joined by the pianist, Jeremy Denk, played a fine concert at Amherst College on Sunday, September 18, with works by three of the giants: Schubert, Mozart, and Dvorak. Having heard neither the Miro nor Denk before, it was terrific meeting them playing together. And the players were in a creative frame of mind, perhaps because they were introducing their new second violinist, William Fedkenheuer, playing in his second concert with Daniel Ching, John Largess, and Joshua Gindele, who had started out together at Oberlin 16 years ago. Perhaps also because Denk demonstrated an imaginative, indeed improvisatory approach to music-making that had both the players and the audience on their toes.
First came Schubert and the Miro, without piano. Schubert apparently aimed his beloved Quartettsatz, in C minor (D.703) written in 1820, at virtuosi, in contradistinction to his earlier chamber works for strings that were within reach of the techniques of his family members and amateur players. Playing with virtuosity, unanimity of impulse, tightly knit sound, and impeccable intonation, the Miro easily met both the technical and musical challenges. Ching, the first violinist, toyed winningly with both phrasing and sound in the delicious andante passages sandwiched by all the excitement. It was a fresh and exhilarating performance, and at the end one was pleased that Schubert, for unknown reasons, kept this remarkable music from extending to his customary “heavenly length.”
With Denk at the keyboard and Fedkenheuer off stage, Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 493, followed. Both as a soloist and chamber musician, Denk has garnered considerable praise, and it took about a minute for him to prove it’s well deserved. He has fleet and relaxed fingers; dropped notes in a work that frightens pianists for its transparency were rare. He enjoys fading into the background with a rhythmically precise whisper, or seizing flamboyantly those moments when the piano shines. He moves within a phrase but doesn’t lose the long line. Few passages are played the same way twice, and there’s little point arguing with one of his decisions, because you can be pretty sure he’ll do things differently the next time. When, in the last movement, Mozart asks the pianist to fly, Denk levitated. For me, Menachem Pressler has long defined the ultimate chamber pianist, but Denk is right up there.
The Miro players displayed lightning fast reflexes. After two short rehearsals, the ensemble was remarkable, with give-and-take shared equally by the pianist and the strings. But in a dry hall whose creator chose concrete over wood at almost every opportunity, the strings were a bit dull; the dark, sustained chords that set the stage lacked edge and requisite weight. On the other hand, in contrast to the last two quartets I heard, the Tokyo and the Borromeo, these players aren’t afraid both to draw the listener into a barely audible pianissimo and to let their bows jump off the string when Mozart calls for air and speed. At times, I would have liked a bit more space between transitions, but all in all, a fine performance.
Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, brought the afternoon to an eloquent close. Appropriately, Denk demonstrated a thicker sound, but nothing that approached a bang. He delighted in Dvorak’s lyricism; his transitions were unpredictable, filled with subtle spontaneity and surprise. While this afternoon didn’t have him playing the modern masters he enjoys, he is clearly a pianist of great breadth. And if you think he plays well, take a look here at how he writes; learn how Sarah Palin thinks about the Hammerklavier Sonata!
The Miro players got many solo turns in the Dvorak, and they took full advantage. Ching demonstrated a virtuosic technique, combined with understated but beguiling charm. His wrist vibrato produces an uncommonly warm sound, and his bow arm is flexible and strong. Fedkenheuer, whose playing I know from his earlier incarnations in the Borromeo and Fry Street Quartets, is a highly imaginative, forceful, and aggressive player, exactly what a quartet needs from a second fiddler. Largess, the violist, is similar, although I felt his viola held him back. He sings a long line and is fully in command of his instrument. And Gindele brings up the bass nicely. Rhythmically impeccable, content to lie back when he should, he charmed as he took center stage when Dvorak called on him.
A word about instruments and the challenges a young quartet faces when compared to those blessed with great instruments. In contrast, the Tokyo plays four Stradivari. The Borromeo are guardians of a Guarneri del Gesu, a violin by Stradivari’s son, a fine Venetian cello, and a modern viola by Moes and Moes of great distinction. The Brentano are stewards of instruments of similar class. But the Miro isn’t as well off, and they suffer in comparison. Fedkenheuer has a good 18th-century Neapolitan violin; the other three play modern instruments that, to my ears, hold them back. Many variables contribute to string sound: the player, the hall, the bow, the instrument, the humidity, to name a few. But whatever contributed what, Fedkenheuer’s sound spun through the air, and there were many more colors.
Finally, armed with experience in epidemiology and enjoying a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon on a resplendent New England college campus, I stood outside watching the large and upbeat audience arrive. My estimate is that the average age was 66.2 years and, despite the proximity of four other fine colleges, I saw only a handful of young people who may be students. Partial explanation came from an Amherst undergraduate who accompanied me: Sunday follows Saturday, and that means recovery and/or catch up time for students. Further deterrents were sunshine at 3 pm and a student ticket price of $12 on a campus currently famed for its diversity and generosity to those with few family resources (although I was told subsequently that students who signed up in advance got tickets for free). Whatever the reasons, the paradox remains: Never have there been more extraordinary young players and ensembles; never have there been fewer young people attending chamber music concerts.
So, a suggestion: Amherst’s new President, Carolyn A. Martin, and her four neighbors should try to bring the Miro to New England, leading a charge for both chamber and country music (Fedkenheuer was the country fiddle champ of Canada when 13 years old). In response, the University of Texas in Austin, current home for the Miro, should gather four extraordinary instruments for the Quartet. After all, the effete Easterners have them. Can’t the Wild West keep up?
Tom Delbanco is the Koplow-Tullis Professor of General Medicine and Primary Care at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. An avid violinist since age nine, he has particular interest in the evolution of stringed instruments from the sixteenth century on.