There are no Japanese players in the Ensō String Quartet, an ensemble formed in 1999. Its choice of a Japanese Zen term for a circle, including certain types of opposites like perfection and imperfection, seems to be a statement of purpose. At times the ensemble plays with a level of elegance that can seem oriental in nature. But it’s not limited in its approach to any one affect.
At Maverick Concerts in Woodstock, on August 25th , the foursome, consisting Maureen Nelson, violin; John Marcus, violin II; Melissa Reardon, viola; and Richard Belcher, cello; led off its program with hefty Mozart: the Quartet in C, K. 465, known as the “Dissonance” from its visionary-sounding Adagio section beginning the first movement. This section is often played with more drama than the Ensō Quartet gave it, but that calm introduction led to an elegant, full-bodied reading of the movement, with wide dynamics and gratifying attention to detail. The ensemble showed its range with a surprisingly rough episode in the finale. I’ve heard more intense Mozart-playing than this, but I’m not complaining. It was beautiful.
Britten’s String Quartet No. 2, in C, Op. 36, doesn’t call for elegance very often. This searing piece, part of Maverick’s 100th birthday celebration of the composer, was written during the last year of World War II, and seems to reflect the terror and anguish of war. The first movement in particular contains an amazing progression of moods and affects, and even the relatively calm moments are unsettling. The second movement, Vivace, is a scary tarantella. The finale, longer than the previous two movements combined, is a large scale chaconne, and labeled as such, but with a very modern use of the form which never abandons a thoroughly 20th-century style. The Ensō Quartet’s strong identification with this music made for a compelling experience, and it drew a rare mid-concert standing O from the audience, in which I joined enthusiastically.
After the Britten, Verdi’s String Quartet in E Minor was a kind of mild-flavored dessert. Verdi did approach the string quartet form, which he used to divert himself during a period of delay during rehearsals for Aïda, as an instrumental composer. The only aria-like moments are the second movement, which has an appropriately vocal-sounding theme, and the B section of the third movement, where the cello has a chance to sing. The contrapuntal texture of the opening movement is impressively well done. The finale, labeled Scherzo Fuga, is a fugue in the Beethoven, not Bach, mode. This work may not be a masterpiece, but it’s entertaining and worth an occasional hearing, especially when played this clearly and well. For this listener, though, Verdi’s instrumental writing is outdone by Puccini’s Chrysanthemums, a heartfelt and moving piece for string quartet which was beautifully played as a generous encore.
Saturday night’s concert included a disproportionate amount of talk, but in this Sunday concert—a much longer program—the palaver was limited to 12 minutes.