Setting Mozart’s playful String Quartet No. 22 (K. 589) next to Bartók’s unnerving sixth quartet, and then concluding with Debussy’s atmospheric G Minor String Quartet (Op. 10) is bound to generate some surprising contrasts. Yet the Muir Quartet went beyond any expected juxtapositions and really opened ears in Boston University’s College of Fine Arts concert series last night.
As any BU freshman can attest, the Tsai Performance Center is not exactly a vivid acoustic space. Yet from violist Steven Ansell’s contrapuntal lines in the opening Allegro of Mozart’s quartet, to him, second violinist Lucia Lin and cellist Michael Reynolds’ forming a glowing trio after Reynolds’ heartfelt solo in the Larghetto, the sheer variety of instrumental colors and combinations coming from “just four players” proved gripping.
The rigid, enclosing second movement March of the Bartók flowed into a delightfully eerie, leaden groove, with first violinist Peter Zazofsky curling around his colleagues. The two violinists’ distinct tones, Lin, dark and profoundly isolated in the third movement of the Bartok, and Zazofksy glistening but frosty in Debussy’s second movement, offered further contrasts. Ansell added power from the inside of the group, nearly stealing the show during brief solos (his beaming demeanor after each piece was also enjoyable). Ansell and Reynolds frequently locked in together, for example in the runs behind the Zazosky in Mozart’s Menuetto, making even accompaniments sound not just musical but interesting.
Moments such as the well-timed dialogs and crescendos in the final Allegro Assai of the Mozart, or the shimmering inner parts throughout the Debussy showed off the Muir’s assured yet empathic interplay. Pizzicato sections of the Bartók and Debussy works recalled both the timbre and rhythm of a well-tuned drum kit. Lyrical ideas were passed with the care given to a beloved heirloom, while more upbeat themes were exchanged with the energy and timing of a good basketball team.
Given the range of textures, themes, harmonies, rhythmic ideas and formal devices explored, the Muir Quartet tied it all into a rich, moving experience. Mozart’s quartet, one of three “Prussian Quartets” intended for the cello-playing King of Prussia Friedrich Wilhelm II, began demure, almost twee. By the snappy fourth and final movement, it had explored the joys and tensions lurking under the polished surfaces. Debussy’s quartet, with its mixture of the sophisticated harmonies the composer is known for and more driving moments rooted in the French dance tradition, was lively and thoughtful all at once. The group’s balance during the third movement was a reminder that there is more to music than a beautiful sound, but sometimes it feels good to stop there and listen for a while.
The central work of the evening, Bartók’s String Quartet No. 6, captured an ideal sense of discomfort. Over four movements, each beginning with a gradually more unsettling “Mesto,” the Muir worked its way through isolation, frustration and despondency, coming just shy of excruciation to keep things riveting. The concluding Molto Tranquilo comes after a long, challenging journey, and seems to express enervation rather than peace. Unsurprisingly, the members of the Muir Quartet looked visibly spent at the close of the piece, and it was easy to sympathize. This was an exhausting program, in the very best sense of the word.