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Masterful Pacing, Communication from Muir Quartet


It was satisfying to see a large crowd making good use of a drizzly Monday evening on October 3 by attending a free and very fine chamber concert: the Muir String Quartet, ensemble-in-residence at BU, performing Mozart, Bartók, and Brahms at the Tsai Performance Center. The four musicians — Peter Zazofsky and Lucia Lin, violins; Steven Ansell, viola; and Michael Reynolds, cello — played with skill, pleasure, and evident appreciation for the music and for each other. The evening demonstrated why the string quartet is regarded as such an eloquent genre, and how a program of thoughtfully played quartets can bring the listener on as profound a journey as their heftier symphonic relatives.

Each player brought to the stage the truly great skill of a chamber musician: the ability to merge a completely unique and personal sound with the other players to create something new. This ability was apparent right from the start, with the unison opening of Mozart’s Quartet in E-flat, K. 428. The Mozart did not seem, as sometimes happens, to be treated as prelude or warm-up to the more acrobatic work to come, but rather a natural and subtle beginning to the evening. After the gracefully balanced and phrased opening, it was a pleasure to hear each player emerge from the texture, first in short fragments and then more persistently. The first movement, like the whole piece and the whole concert, was patiently paced; the most energetic of the arpeggiated flurries were saved for the development and the players were ready to lapse back into their proto-group-sound at the drop of a bar line. The Andante, likewise, exhibited the group’s carefully controlled layering, although Zazofsky’s vibrato occasionally overpowered the delicacy of the phrasing. The Menuetto was pleasantly substantial and feisty, building up to the good-natured rollicking of the fourth movement. The overall execution of sound and color was only marred a bit for me visually by Zazofsky’s bow technique, which involved many fast notes and rapid string changes near the tip with what seemed like a strenuous amount of arm motion. The paradox with Classical string quartets is that, as mentioned earlier, one does not want to see them dismissed as easy or insubstantial; yet I always find myself desiring an overall experience of ease and grace in an aesthetically successful performance, even at rambunctious parts.

Not so Bartók, whose String Quartet No. 2 requires all the sweat and fervor that Muir gave it. At first glance at the program I was surprised to see the non-chronological progression from Mozart to Bartók, yet when the Bartók began I was immediately struck by the similarities between the two in both composition and performance. The performers again displayed a remarkable equality and balance, with careful attention to imitation and polyphonic layering. The substantial presence of each part led to an occasional struggle for the primary melodic line to be heard, but resulted in a richness of sound that also drew attention to Bartók’s economy of compositional material and the intervallic relationships between the parts. In imitative sections each part came through clearly, and dialogues between players were brought out both through sound and body language. It was especially a pleasure to watch Lin and Ansell bring the inner voices together across the spatial diagonal. As in the Mozart, the end of the first movement brought all voices together in a crisp and clear unison before petering out into a chilly thinness.

All stops were finally pulled out in the Allegro molto capriccioso, which took off at a speeding tempo. The mutual trust necessary for such reckless-sounding rushing and slowing was evident, and with it the group achieved an impressive balance of collective capriciousness, spontaneous yet unified. The spiccato (bouncing strokes of the bow) was excitingly percussive, and the muted scurrying at the movement’s close seemed like barely reigned in madness. The final Lento required an entirely different kind of virtuosity, that of maintaining stasis and calculating build. The players drew tension and substance out of every pitch, and when they paired off and held notes suspended in midair, only the most careful attention could catch slight misalignments in the almost impossible task of simultaneous resolution.

The third selection, Brahms’s Quartet in C minor, op. 51 No. 1, also showed the results of careful pacing. The opening theme, despite the passionate character of the melody, was not feverish; Zazofsky and Lin opted for deliberate dotted rhythms and expansive triplets. This allowed the lower strings to restate the theme in even sharper and more powerful contrast, and gave Zazofsky the chance to shine in true operatic style in the soaring notes of the coda. Brahms’s distinctive thematic fragmentation in the development was delivered with bold precipitousness. The Romanze was again well-balanced and hymnlike; as in the Mozart, I felt that the only time Zazofsky’s sound digressed was in a few slightly strained and overvibrated high notes that should have floated. The third movement began in the style of a sweet and loving interlude, gradually unfolding its many parts in a relaxed tempo, before the closing Allegro brought back the first movement’s theme in a more biting transformation. Lin asserted her sound and presence more and more in the third and fourth movements, which combined with Reynolds’s insistent bass to create much of the heaviness and momentum that drove the last movement to a triumphant close.

Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor.

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