Parking was hard to find. The hall was filled. Something big was about to happen at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center last Friday night. Area concert goers gathered to hear some of the best quartet playing imaginable, playing that The New York Times referred to as “something extraordinary.” The Grammy Award-winning Parker Quartet was in town performing Mozart’s last string quartet, K. 590 in F Major, Leon Kirchner’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning Quartet No. 3 for String Quartet and Electronic Tape, and the quartet Robert Schumann wrote in four days, his Op 41, No. 3 in A Major. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that, as an NEC faculty member, I have known these players since their student days not so many years ago.
For those unfamiliar with the Shalin Liu Performance Center, the wall behind the stage is made of glass, providing a sweeping view of the ocean. Beautiful as the backdrop was on this cool, clear evening, all attention was soon focused exclusively on Kee-Hyun Kim, cello, Jessica Bodner, viola, Karen Kim, second violin, and Daniel Chong, first violin. The Parker Quartet has been participating in the Rockport Chamber Music Festival since 2005, so it was like greeting old friends.
Quartet playing is supposed to be hard: these four players made it seem easy. They made the audience smile and nod in response to their obvious delight in the music and in performing. Constantly in touch with each other, they moved and breathed as one beautifully musical organism. Imbued with their strong rhythmic sense, the music of every piece flowed and ebbed with grace. There were four individual players on stage, each one a strong personality, but as in all great chamber groups, they created the effect of being one.
The hushed mood of the first two long notes of the opening measure of Mozart’s last quartet was startlingly interrupted by the accented third note and then thrown down with a vigorous descending scale. By the end of the first phrase, it was clear that we were going to hear some truly extraordinary playing. Mozart’s K. 590, written in June of 1790, was one of three string quartets he finished for King Frederick William II. The King played cello, and it is clear from the part that he was a good player. So is Kee-Hyun Kim; he brought great presence to every aspect of the part, even in the long pedal notes. The evident fun of the viola part suggests that Mozart, himself, may have played it. Jessica Bodner carried the part with wit and musicality that the composer surely would have appreciated.
First violinist Daniel Chong introduced Kirchner’s third quartet with a brief story that placed the odd pairing of electronic sounds with string sounds in historical context. The opening dialogues between tape and string quartet set up various relationships, sometimes mutually supportive, sometimes protesting what had just been heard. The tutti scrambles were delightful. There were stunning moments in which the quartet blended its sounds with the tape so smoothly that it was difficult to identify which sound source one was hearing. The ending was stunning: The recorded tape texture introduced the last moments, and then the slow ascending chords of the quartet emerged and wiped the recording away.
The opening phrases of Schumann’s Quartet Op. 41 No. 3 convincingly conveyed the search for the right key; the offbeats of the higher strings that accompany the beautiful cello line (which gets passed to violin I) were easy and solid without being pedantic. (One sometimes hears the effect of counting during this passage.) The opening phrases of the agitato second movement that features third-beat beginnings were like sighs. The cello’s explosive power that brought in the “almost fugue” built to enormous power as each instrument entered in succession from bottom to top. Then, as one, the ensemble turned sweet as the first violin and viola traded phrases of delight that the second violin and cello could not resist. In long and soft octave pedal points, the first violin and cello framed the second violin and viola, who wandered in murmuring sixths until the cello finally persuaded everyone to pick up the ascending fourths that ever so delicately brought the movement to a close.
The slow movement is a jewel. While the other parts play with another ascending fourth motive, the dum – pa dum – pa dum of the dotted eighths and sixteenths that are so much a part of Schumann’s vocabulary were articulated with such subtlety by Karen Kim’s quiet energy that the music was moved forward without effort. Throughout the movement and indeed, the entire evening, Daniel Chong, always sure and “right on,” led the group with rich nuances and through many breathtaking ritards with total security.
The opening of the final movement is a refrain that one often comes to dread, because the insistent rhythm of dotted eighths and sixteenth (again) is so overplayed. The Parker Quartet turns this into a burst of energy that brings the listener willingly back to the beginning from any one of the diverse paths the piece has taken — the best performance I have ever heard of this movement, of this piece.
The Parker Quartet has two CDs out, one containing Bartok’s String Quartets Nos. 2 and 5, and the Grammy Award-winning recording of Ligeti’s First and Second Quartets. The Quartet plans to release a recording of Haydn quartets within the year.