in: Reviews

March 24, 2012

Brahms Brought out Best of Chiara at Harvard


The Chiara String Quartet wrapped up the fourth year of annual week-long stints as Blodgett Artists-in-Residence at Harvard University with a free recital at Paine Hall last night. For its final concert, the Juilliard-trained quartet offered a richly diverse program, with four works representing each of the four centuries of string quartet literature.

The group opened with the 18th century, and Franz Joseph Haydn’s Quartet in D, Op. 76, No. 5. Papa Haydn more or less invented the string quartet genre and made up the compositional rules as he created some of its finest exemplars. One unique feature in this quartet is the stately Largo second movement, almost as long as the other three combined. The Chiara’s playing in this quartet struck my ear as a shade on the polite side. There was nothing to criticize in first violinist Rebecca Fischer’s increasingly ornamented handling of the Siciliano theme of the first movement, and the ensemble of pulsed chords from the three lower strings was well timed, but the group didn’t really catch fire. Chords didn’t ring out, dynamic contrasts didn’t register, and the quartet seemed a little static. Redemption came in the final movement, when Haydn’s prankster-ish style (beginning with something that sounds like a cadential ending, then launching into a folk-like tune over galloping accompaniment), seemed to bring out more dynamic contrast and impish humor from the group.

The second composition hails from the 21st century. Ann Cleare is currently a doctoral student in composition at Harvard, and her work moil won a Blodgett composition competition in 2010. The dictionary informs me that “moil” is an abbreviation of “turmoil,” implying a process of whirling or churning ceaselessly. This work seems to be a compendium of string playing technique, offering every means of getting sound out of a string instrument that I’ve ever seen, and a few techniques that I had never seen before. Violinists Fischer and Julie Hye-Yung Yoon offered ponticello playing (bowing near the bridge), creating high harmonic sounds that reminded me repeatedly of birdsong — even more vividly than in Messiaen. Bows were struck on the instrument, dragged across the string with enough pressure to stifle the resonant sound, and bowed in a circular fashion, across the strings at the same time they went up and down the strings. Another moment, when violist Jonah Sirota and cellist Gregory Beaver were doing circular bowing in the lower part of their registers, the eerie low-pitched moans resembled humpback whale song. And I can’t even guess how some of the sounds were produced. Read  Cleare’s evocative but opaque program notes (here), view a sample of the quartet score, and hear part of moil, though it may make more sense if you can see the sound being produced at the same time you hear it.) As a collection of sound effects for a suspense movie, the work is extraordinary; as a musical experience, it struck me as vividly descriptive, but not quite narrative.

With the third piece of the evening, Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3, the Chiara Quartet moved back into the 20th century. In one movement of four terse sections, Bartók subjects two basic melodic ideas to a series of pre-Baroque developmental procedures, including the imitative styles of canon and fugue, inversion (turning the tune upside down), augmentation (playing each note for a longer period) and diminution (playing each note for a shorter period). Bartók was also a pioneer in string sound, introducing col legno (striking the string with the wood of the bow) and ponticello, among many other unique sounds into the quartet literature. And after immersion in Cleare’s sound world, the Bartók came off sounding like old music, with those rapid-fire developmental procedures easier to hear and appreciate. The Chiara Quartet dug into this work with gusto. Beaver and Sirota launched into the pizzicato (plucked) scales of the Seconda parte with earthy vigor, all four offered lovely call-and-response in the canonical sections, and the open fifths rang out with exquisitely tuned authority

After intermission, the Chiara Quartet concluded a generous evening with a 19th-century masterwork, Johannes Brahms’s Quartet in B-flat, Op. 67. This brought out the Chiara’s best playing of the evening, with sharp dynamic contrasts (particularly noticeable in the quirky opening theme of the first movement), immaculate ensemble playing, snappy motivic exchange, sumptuous tuning (especially in the divine ending of the slow movement), and plenty of the same energetic, folksy verve that informed the Haydn finale and the Bartók. And ears now immersed in the sound complexities of Cleare and the contrapuntal complexities of the Bartók were left in excellent condition to appreciate the meticulous construction of the Brahms, hearing voices in canon, augmentation and diminution in a way that would have been harder to hear if this work had opened the concert. Special kudos are due to violist Jonah Sirota, who offered a regal, rich tone in the viola concerto of the third movement against muted violins and cello. And for the final theme-and-variations movement, the group executed a breathtaking piecemeal crescendo in the coda, backing off skillfully before concluding an evening of four centuries of quartet innovation with an enthusiastic bang.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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