Now in its 48th season, the itinerant Musicians from Marlboro program takes on tour music performed earlier each year at the prestigious Marlboro Music summer music workshop and festival to showcase not only the repertory but also the prodigious skills of the Marlboro participants. A travelling contingent of six of these young professionals in the company of a member of the Marlboro faculty, held forth at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in a program of two rarities and one familiar friend on Sunday.
The first half of the program was given over to the rarities, both for string quartet, which in this instance comprised violinists Bella Hristova and Danbi Um, violist Hsin-Yun Huang, and cellist Angela Park. They began with Igor Stravinsky’s Concertino, dating from 1920, when Stravinsky was consolidating the neoclassical style that would take him down through the 1950s. Stravinsky in fact wrote very little for string quartet; nothing by that title, and after the Concertino nothing until the 1959 Double Canon. One suspects that, especially in the 1920s, string sonorities did not satisfactorily capture the rigid and somewhat standoffish sensibility he was after, seen notably in the Symphonies of Wind Instruments of the same year and the wind octet of 1923. One might even think of the Concertino as an esthetic experiment. At the same time, Stravinsky was not displeased with the work, as, according to Stravinsky’s Boswell Robert Craft, he demanded 500 francs per performance when the piece was taken on European tour in the 1920s. Clocking in at between six and seven minutes, it is a single movement in ternary form that puzzles one by its name. Granted that the first violin (Hristova) has a more prominent part than the other instruments, but really no more so than in a Haydn or Mozart string quartet. Maybe Stravinsky was thinking of the quartet as constituting the concertino of a concerto grosso, leaving the audience to imagine what the ripieno was up to. Be all that as it may, the performance on Sunday was vigorous, not particularly bravura (except in counting!) but firm-toned, rhythmically incisive and well balanced. Hristova was elegant and expressive whenever the occasion called for it.
The major item on the first half was Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 3 in G major, op. 94, Britten’s penultimate work, dating from 1975. For those with a characteristic “Britten sound” in their mind’s ears this piece comes as a bit startling. In fact, it reflects, apart from Britten’s personal concerns at the end of his life, dogged by ill health, the strong influence of his friend Dmitri Shostakovich. While the fourth (of five) movements is a direct memorial to Shostakovich, who had died that year, much of the rest of the work has a sound conjuring up the late music of the Soviet master. The first movement, called “Duets” for its assignment of music to the instruments in varying pairs, is in moderate tempo, mournful and sweet. Um, taking the first violin chair for this piece, was especially so in the upper registers, though somewhat lacking in sonic power. The second movement, a kind of rough scherzo on an ostinato figure that Britten ingeniously presents in varying moods and inversions, contains a gentle trio with a group glissando that the quartet took with thrilling effect. The central movement, called “Solo,” was an island of icy calm. It has the first violin taking most of the melody (Um was in gorgeous sound here), mostly accompanied by the other instruments one at a time, with a contrasting section of fluttering ensemble pizzicato and harmonics in the cello. The second scherzo, called “Burlesque,” invoked Shostakovich but was not as tartly sardonic—Britten had no experiences in his life that could produce the musical rictus of which Shostakovich was the master. One bit of grotesquerie Britten employed (and that was splendidly played by Huang, the Marlboro faculty representative) was a section in the trio in which the viola is directed to play below the bridge. The finale, twice as long as the longest other movement, was a “Recitative and Passacaglia” in which the former uses themes from Britten’s Death in Venice from 1973 and a rocking major-second motif, which then generates the theme for the passacaglia and becomes an obsessive accompaniment figure. This part of the movement carries its own title, La Serenissima, which is the sobriquet for the city of Venice, in which Britten actually composed it. The contrapuntal statements of the theme might lead one to the conclusion that the movement is a canon or fugue rather than a set of variations. This movement is, of course, the emotional apotheosis of the whole work, and the ad hoc Marlboro quartet performed it with passionate yet restrained dignity and angelic beatitude. Britten commented on this movement that it should end with a question, and the only negative we found in the performance was in that last note, in which the upper three instruments did not cut out soon enough to leave the cello with its last, questioning sound for as long as it ought.
The second half, in which the personnel other than Huang changed, gave us the Piano Quartet in A major, Op. 26, by Johannes Brahms. Of his three numbered piano quartets (he destroyed several early attempts, one of which may have been recovered; its attribution remains speculative), this one lives somewhat in the shadow of its two more famous and powerful siblings, but is nevertheless popular for its warmth and sweetness. Pianist Matan Porat opened it with a somewhat detached phrasing of the principal tune, which (was someone doing this deliberately in programming these works?) features the same kind of rocking major seconds as in the Britten quartet. We noted some logistical issues in the ensemble, in which the strings—Emilie-Anne Gendron, violin, Huang, and Gabriel Cabezas, cello—were attentive and well coordinated to each other, but seemed to leave Porat a bit out of the eye-contact loop as a result of their seating positions. There was no issue of togetherness, but until the last two movements, when Porat made more of a point to check in, there seemed like there was little communication going on between the two timbral units. Overall, this was a very fine performance, not as deep and subtle as one can hear from the great mature ensembles like the original Beaux Arts Trio (with Walter Trampler), but full of Viennese sweetness in the slow movement, a nicely brusque trio in the “scherzo” (really an intermezzo) to contrast with the more laid-back outer sections, and a lively and bouncy coda to the finale.