Maverick Concerts has been featuring music of Benjamin Britten this summer for his centenary, and we’ve been treated to some outstanding examples of his work. Last Sunday, though, was the first time we’ve had two Britten works in one concert. On August 31, the Daedalus Quartet brought us Britten’s First String Quartet, along with a brand spanking new arrangement of the song cycle Winter Words, originally for tenor and piano. The program was filled out with music of Schubert, which we know Britten loved, and Smetana.
The performance of Schubert’s Quartet Movement (D. 703) was just a bit disappointing. First violinist Min-Young Kim wasn’t playing some elaborate figurations clearly enough and they wound up buried in the mix. Maybe she wasn’t warmed up yet; she showed no such problems later on. However, the overall playing was rich sounding and super-clean in execution, and the power of this extraordinary music came through effectively. I’ve always suspected that Schubert abandoned work on it because he couldn’t yet follow through on such a dramatic style of quartet writing. He certainly did later!
Britten’s First String Quartet was composed in 1941, when the composer was still in America. He wrote it in California, on commission from the legendary music philanthropist Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. It’s a substantial work, lasting nearly half an hour, in the traditional four movements. I was most affected by the deep and moving slow third movement, and then found the finale rather diffuse in its structure and not easy to follow. It’s hard to tell with relatively unfamiliar music like this just how good the performance is, but this one sounded totally convincing. The ethereal quality of the second movement was very well conveyed, and the finale was indeed “Molto vivace.” I don’t think this work will become my favorite of Britten’s, but it was certainly worth hearing.
Winter Words is a setting of eight poems selected from the work of Thomas Hardy. As a poet Hardy can be wildly uneven, and some of these poems seem to me little more than talented doggerel. However, it doesn’t take great poems to make great songs, and this little-known cycle certainly deserves to be better known. Perhaps cellist Thomas Kraines’s arrangement of the original piano accompaniment for string quartet will help further that goal. It’s incredibly ingenious. The writing for string quartet sounds so idiomatic that it was hard to imagine the music in any other setting. Tenor Rufus Müller, new to Maverick Concerts, is an extraordinary artist. His singing was deeply expressive, his diction clear, his sound consistently beautiful throughout an unusually wide dynamic range. Clearly this world premiere performance had been thoroughly rehearsed because the coordination and balances were flawless. This was one of the best Britten experiences of the season.
The Daedalus Quartet has certainly paid a great deal of attention to preparing its performance of Smetana’s Quartet No. 1, “From My Life.” As Maverick’s Music Director Alexander Platt pointed out, this piece was a concert staple within our memory but seems to have fallen out of favor today, which he and I think is a pity. Smetana was not just the founder of Czech nationalism, he was a fine composer who left us some works of great substance and emotional power.
There was even a hint of old-fashioned portamento in the playing of the first movement, a style nobody dares to use anymore for fear of being thought sentimental but which was prevalent in the string playing of Smetana’s time and for decades afterwards. (You can hear plenty of it in the splendid 1928 recording of the piece by the Bohemian Quartet, a very valuable historical document.) I found the first movement a bit heavy and not quite as volatile as I like, but the excellent playing of the important viola part by Jessica Thompson made up for any failings. The second movement captured the dance quality of the music very well, with great freedom of tempo in the center section. The third movement had powerful emotion without a hint of sentimentality, and the finale was extremely dramatic and convincing. Overall it was the kind of performance that reminds listeners how valuable this music is.
As an encore the Daedalus Quartet played one of Ervin Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet, winning a roar of approval from the audience. This was perhaps partial compensation for the Schulhoff Quartet originally on the Maverick schedule for this summer which we never got to hear. Perhaps next season, I hope.