The sizeable audience at the Cambridge Society for Early Music’s January 30th offering proved that I am not the only one who thinks an all-Haydn string quartet program on period instruments is about as good as it gets for an evening’s worth of chamber music. This was the decision of the Coriolanus Quartet for their debut concert; violinists Suzanna Ogata and Cynthia Freivogel, violist Karina Fox, and cellist Guy Fishman are familiar faces to Boston-area Baroque fans as well as members of noted period ensembles throughout the country. However, I will admit to certain qualms when I first opened my program: it was a lot of Haydn, and something of a “greatest hits” program. But by the concert’s conclusion my doubts were dispelled: it was a thorough pleasure to hear these works performed with such sincerity, investment, attention to detail, spirit, and variety. Often at string quartet recitals a Haydn is presented first, in an obligatory manner, and no matter how fine a performance it is given, the air persists of a warm-up or introduction (“the Father of the string quartet…look what he started!”). Being offered Haydn as the meat of the program, in contrast, allows the listener to gradually lose hold of 21st-century baggage in a process like that of Alice shrinking, entering a world in which nuance, timing, and gesture create infinite possibilities of depth and meaning.
The performers also had the advantage of the acoustics of Zero Garden Street’s Christ Church, which when courted assiduously revealed a wonderful degree of clarity and fidelity to the group’s sound. The string quartet is an ensemble upon which the period-instrument movement has perhaps made the least inroads, no doubt due to the comparative lateness of its body of repertoire. So when the quartet’s dramatically cued beginning of Op. 76, No. 2 in D minor (“The Fifths”) resulted in the subdued volume and tone of gut strings played with Classical bows, I experienced something of a disconnect between visuals and sound. Possibly to counter such preconceptions, the players went for bold gestures, fast bows, and ringing notes, most markedly in a chorale-like chord progression later in the exposition that was executed with repeated, swooping up-bows. This was an edgy decision intonation-wise, especially in the initial settling-in period, for under such pressure gut strings reveal not only hairline inaccuracies on the performers’ parts but any defects of their own (notoriously persnickety) selves. However, by the time the recap rolled around, the players seemed well on their way to finding an ideal consensus of dynamics, balance, and grittiness as well as intonation. The sustained suspensions of one transitional section gave the first glimpse of the truly unique sounds available to the quartet, and the growl of pedal tones hinted at quirky possibilities of character.
The second movement, Andante o più tosto allegretto, as its title suggests, was not one of Haydn’s operatic slow movements, but moved along at a relaxed clip. (Throughout the program, in fact, the performers never seemed to be trying to impress with the easy out of extreme tempi.) First violinist Ogata navigated the many principal-line stylings with a pleasingly matter-of-fact honesty, neither making too much of the handfuls of notes nor indulging in overly ornate affectation. The minuet, with its snappy low-versus-high-strings chase, showcased some remarkably crisp and well-synced turns, and the trio offered a chance for the different players’ personalities to emerge. Freivogel and Fishman, when surfacing from their supporting roles, attacked their interjections with gleeful intensity, pouncing on the notes in an irresistibly gremlin-like fashion. Fox, in contrast, was a constant paradigm of grace, even when coaxing snarls from her instrument. This characteristic divergence made the unity of the minuet more powerful by contrast — the purpose of the form made practice. The concluding Vivace assai gave Ogata the opportunity to get a little crazy, popping out lightening-quick glissandi and engaging in feisty, rough bow strokes right on top of the frog — the kind of daredevilry that makes playing on period instruments seem like a blast.
The next selection was Op. 33, No. 2 in E-flat Major (“The Joke” of well-worn punchline). Freivogel’s program notes (copious additional notes were provided by CSEM manager Flynn Warmington) encouraged readers to look beyond the obvious for touches of subtler panache. The quartet made the unusual decision to switch violin parts with every piece, a technique which worked quite well, giving the new selection an added component of originality. As first violinist, Freivogel’s sound was lush where Ogata’s had been crisper; Freivogel treated her melodies with a richer, rounder tone and didn’t shy away from the occasional hint of portamento on shifts. On fast notes she let loose with a volley of bow speed, an impressively energetic display. A more compact bow would certainly have been cleaner, but would have lacked the sense of abandon that revealed her romantic streak. Likewise, Freivogel obviously had fun with the slides indicated by Haydn in the Scherzo, varying the degree of schmaltz with impeccable taste.
The Largo brought the pure intervallic pleasure of two-voice counterpoint, beginning with low strings and continuing with violins. Demonstrating the continuing blossoming of their sonic and emotional range, the players dug into the declamatory chords that came in striking contrast to the movement’s predominant melodic lyricism. Fox had no trouble owning the melody in when it appeared in her instrument’s voice, proof of both her skill as soloist and of the group’s consistently egalitarian balance. The final cadence was a satisfying demonstration of group cohesion achieved, impeccable in both timing and balance. Freivogel set into the goofy, rollicking theme of the Presto with a loose-limbed, sardonic ease, tossing off turns and ornaments, and showed her own particular comic timing with a deprecatory little shrug after the concluding half-cadence. Although audience members began chuckling in an in-the-know kind of way as soon as the final rhythmic hiccups started, my seatmate and I spent the beginning of intermission speculating on the layers of wit that weren’t so blatant — for instance, the fact that the final semi-phrase wouldn’t have been half so witty had Haydn written a less cheerfully moronic theme (amplified by the dictatorial nature of rondo form).
Ogata returned to the top seat for Op. 103 in D minor, Haydn’s last quartet, unfinished and consisting of two inner movements: Andante and Menuetto. Maybe because of the lack of neat bookending movements, maybe because of the composer’s proximity to the hereafter, this quartet was by far the darkest and most chaotic. The Andante was contrapuntally rich and involved introspective and unexpected harmonic changes, for which the quartet put to use their well-developed, organ-like chorale sound. It also afforded Fishman his most lyrical moments. The quartet seated themselves antiphonally, with violins on the outside and the cello next to the first violin; the grace of their interaction and balance soon made me forget all about any oddities of seating, but it did mean that the cello was in my blind spot from my seat at the left of the house. Thus I was pleased to have my attention drawn to Fishman again in the minuet, where he finally got a chance to show off some virtuosity, leaping from sinister low range to raw high notes with masterful changes of color. The movement was a chance for such virtuosity, both individual and communal, being uncommonly deep and intricate for a minuet.
I’m not alone in ranking the Andante of Coriolanus’s last selection, Op. 77, No. 2 in F Major, on my all-time favorite list; Freivogel gushed about it also, in her notes, justifiably extolling the whole quartet as a gem of the literature. Her notes were full of passion for the “amazingly special” experience that is string quartet playing, which, to the lone instrumentalist, can inspire a feeling akin to that of the romantically single person observing a pair of newlyweds. The good news was that Coriolanus was not just talk, but action, demonstrating in their final selection love of the music, respect for each other, and joy at sharing it with the audience. In this piece they reached their greatest heights of sensitivity, the deepest contrasts of fire and sublimity. Though the opening Allegro moderato is monothematic, they invested the second strain with a deeply touching tenderness. Color and character changes were executed with even more nimbleness in the minuet, creating moments of both perfect homophony and dry banter. The tempo of the celebrated Andante was rendered on the quick side, giving it a feeling of lightness, warmth, and resilience rather than bittersweet joy. The finale was, as any good concert finale should be, rollicking and rather messy, the players proving the totality of their exertion on behalf of the music.
The Coriolanus Quartet presented a lovely concert in every way, leaving me with the energetic hope that this “debut” will truly be the beginning of a long and productive collaboration.
Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor.