Not every impresario has the temerity to assemble a new string quartet, but that’s exactly what Saul Cohen did for yesterday afternoon’s concert sponsored by his company, Hammond Residential Realty, at Boston’s Old South Church. The results topped any ad hoc foursome this reviewer had ever heard before. The group played like they had been together for years.
Originating from Denmark, Australia, Italy and France, the players, violinists Julie Eskar and Sarita Kwok, violist Ettore Causa, and cellist Alexandre Lecarme, formed a veritable United Nations as well as a string quartet. But it was not until the last item on the program, Bedrich Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 in E minor “From My Life”, that we heard them together.
In that piece the quartet played with freedom, drive, and risk-taking that were quite astonishing in a debut performance. The viola, getting the big tune in the opening, was quite powerful in the resonant confines of the 100-seat Gordon Chapel. Causa was no shrinking violist! The second movement’s galumphing and accelerating Polka was an apotheosis of the Dance. A weeping solo by BSO cellist Lacarme opened the Largo third movement. The four players felt no shame at their over-the-top depictions of the composer’s emotional states. This was, after all, his life. The luftpausen were taken with complete unanimity, the senza vibrato moments showed perfect tuning, and the sections with vibrato were actually synchronized. These are technical accomplishments which one expects only from an experienced quartet. The Vivace fourth movement was quite fast indeed but at the same time was quite juicily inflected and technically immaculate.
Though there are already plenty of fine quartets before the public, I nevertheless encourage this quartet sine nomine to get a name and a performing life.
Three of the four players had chances to show off their individual chops in duos which preceded the Smetana. Mozart’s familiar String Duo no. 1 in G Major for Violin and Viola, KV 423, was dispatched by Eskar and Causa. The sound was almost orchestral in volume in the small space, especially since Causa, standing opposite his partner, did not face her. Rather, he turned away to allow his instrument to point toward the audience. His power and beauty of tone were admirable, and both he and partner Eskar really caught fire. The familiar and jaunty Rondeau was lively and virtuosic with absolute unity of interpretive intent. This was not porcelain Mozart playing, nor was it afflicted with any early-music cant. The players were deferential to each other when it was clear who had the melodic spotlight, but never any less than intense in their interactions.
Seven of Bartok’s 44 Duos for Two Violins followed. This time Eskar played opposite Kwok. In the secundo position (though the parts were entirely equal in their demands and rewards) Eskar, facing her partner, allowed her violin to point aft. This gave a contrast to the sonorities which one could hear quite plainly. The playing was impassioned with pyrotechnics and pathos, though one heard few sly slides until #21, “New Year’s Greeting,” which alternated straight reflective moments with gypsyetical abandon.
Causa returned to the stage with Kwok for a duo transcription by Johan Halvorsen(1864-1935) of Handel’s “Passacaglia” from his Suite No. 7 in G minor, for harpsichord. That transformation and elaboration of Handel might have been the work of Kreisler, so virtuosic and romantic were both the writing and execution. There was an “Anything you can do, I can do better” quality to the interaction of the two supremely gifted players which brought down the house.