in: Reviews

August 11, 2012

Precision, Intensity from Jupiter in Wellfleet


The Jupiter String Quartet — Nelson Lee, violin; Meg Freivogel, violin; Liz Freivogel; viola; and Daniel McDonough, cello; played Haydn, Bartók and Franck in the Wellfleet Congregational Church last evening, as part of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. The Jupiter is one of the finest of the rising string quartets. Lee, Meg Freivogel and McDonough met as students at the Cleveland Institute, and when they were looking for a violist Meg suggested her sister Liz, who was then a student at Oberlin. They went on to study at New England Conservatory and win a long list of prizes. From the performance I heard last night, the prizes were well deserved.

They first demonstrated their precision and their enthusiasm with Haydn’s Quartet No. 30 in E-flat Major, op. 33 No. 2,“The Joke.” The first violin carries most of the weight in this quartet, and Lee was certainly up to the task, with incredibly rapid arpeggios. The quartet is full of Haydn’s wit — in this performance, some wonderfully silly rising portamento fourths in the Scherzo.  The final joke, where the performers seem to come to the end – but then don’t quite stop — worked well; no one in the audience clapped too soon.

The Bartók String Quartet No. 1 was the high point of the concert for me. Begun in Budapest in 1908 and completed in 1909, the piece marks the beginning of Bartók’s unique voice. Conventional major/minor tonality is missing, with rhythmic patterns of development taking its place; but Bartók’s use of harmony is far from atonal. To modern ears it seems far more familiar, with echoes of Debussy, although Bartók’s use of tonality reminded me of many later composers, particularly Shostakovich.

But the extraordinary aspect of the piece is the amount of emotion it expresses, emotion that the Jupiter brought out with great care. The opening movement, marked Lento, introduces a theme based on descending sixths that is excruciatingly sad. Something serious has wilted, maybe even died. Bartók called the first movement “my funeral dirge,” which probably referred to the end of a love affair with the violinist Stefi Geyer. Bartók’s friend Kodály described the next two movements as “a return to life.” Indeed, the dark mood lightens in the next movement, as the tempo increases. The middle of the last movement becomes dance-like, at one point invoking for me a peasant hoedown before the somber mood returns. The Jupiter’s performance was technically polished and intensely evocative throughout. This is what fine musicians bring to the cold notes on a page; one might not be able to tell what the composer was thinking, but one surely knows what he was feeling.

After intermission Diane Walsh joined the Jupiter for a performance of the Quintet in F Minor for Piano and Strings, M.7, by César Franck. The piece is long, melodic, and full of romantic harmonies. The Jupiter played with its usual precision and passion, and Walsh did her best to match it. But the piece did not move me as much as the Bartók, or the recent performance of the Franck Sonata for Violin and Piano [reveiwed here] presented by the Boston Chamber Music Society.  Perhaps this was because I am less familiar with the quintet than the sonata or the great Organ Symphony, which the violin-piano sonata resembles in many ways. But I think a major contributor to my malaise was the balance between the piano and the quartet.

The BCMS concert was in an acoustically dry theater, as was the performance by the Claremont Trio of the Brahms B Major trio [reviewed here] that I heard on Tuesday.  In both of these concerts the pianists performed on seven-foot Steinway Bs. In Wellfleet, Walsh was confronted with a reverberant hall and a nine-foot Steinway concert grand. It has been pointed out to me that the extra length should make no difference to the piano balance in chamber music, and this may be so. But the bass in a nine-foot is definitely stronger, and in Wellfleet several circumstances combined to cause a real balance problem. In all pianos, sound comes both from the top and from the bottom of the instrument. The sound from the bottom is mostly bass, and can be rather muddy. The sound from the top is where the high frequencies are, the ones that give the sound definition and clarity.

In Watertown, the bottom panels of the stage shell were deliberately left open so the sound from underneath the piano could escape into the stage house. In Cotuit there were thick curtains behind the piano, which absorbed much of the muddy sound before it could go to the audience. But in Wellfleet the piano was up against solid wooden wood panels that trapped the sound and directed it right at me, sitting in the third row center. The stage was high enough that the sound from the top went mostly over my head – probably true for much of the audience.

By itself, this might not have been a problem. But the hall is quite reverberant. The property of reverberation is that it gets louder the longer a note is held. In the other two halls this was OK, as there was very little reverberation. But in Wellfleet, whenever Walsh held the pedal down while playing a series of bass notes all the definition of the left hand was lost, along with the sound of the cello and the viola. Granted, it is not necessary to hear all the notes in the left hand to enjoy the piece – but I miss them, and I definitely miss hearing the strings.

At the beginning of the last movement Walsh played with almost no pedaling — and the balance was almost perfect. The contrast could not have been greater between that clarity and the muddle when conventional romantic pedaling returned. It is unlikely that she had any clue that this clarity and balance problem was taking place, as it would have been inaudible from her playing position. So I give the performance high marks, even if it did not entirely work for me. In any case the audience loved the performance, and enthusiastically jumped to their feet at the finale.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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