Pianist Robert Levin joined the Blodgett Artists in Residence the Chiara Quartet on Friday night at Harvard University’s John Knowles Paine Concert Hall for a program encompassing the strongly contrasted styles of Franz Joseph Haydn, Theodor Adorno, and Antonin Dvořák. Haydn (1732-1809) was one of the earliest exponents of the string quartet form and contributed some 83 of them to the repertoire. Adorno (1903-1969) is better known as an academic than as a composer though his music, written in the manner of the Second Viennese School, was well regarded by his teacher Alban Berg. Dvořák (1841-1904) infused his music with Czech nationalism, and his piano quintet is one of the most beloved examples of that form. The Chiara Quartet is composed of Rebecca Fischer, violin; Hyeyung Julie Yoon, violin; Jonah Sirota, viola; and Gregory Beaver, cello.
The congenial opener was Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2, which the Chiara masterfully played from memory. The first movement was gracious and galant, its nuances worked out to a nicety, but with the art that conceals art, the effect was natural and spontaneous as a conversation among friends. The second movement, Capriccio, certainly lives up to its name: after an arresting C minor opening in bare octaves, we heard music that shifted unpredictably among declamatory, mysterious, lyrical, and recitative-like passages. Being free of scores afforded the players maximum eye contact, and the resulting cohesiveness of ensemble and intention was impressive indeed. The elegant Minuetto third movement followed hard on the Capriccio’s heels, seeming almost like a resolution of its Sturm und Drang. If his second movement delights in breaking rules, in the fourth Haydn demonstrates his ability to compose within the strictures of fugal writing (though the inclusion of a double fugue with two countersubjects in a quartet is unconventional to say the least!). The playing was deft and crisp at a fast tempo and remained sotto voce until near the end; at the peroration, as if overflowing with sudden exuberance, cascading forte scales burst out, momentarily reminding one of the final movement of J. S. Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto. It was fascinating to hear the variety of Haydn’s inspiration in his Op. 20, No. 2, fully realized in the sympathetic and vivid playing of the Chiara Quartet.
If Haydn enjoyed breaking some rules, the composers of the Second Viennese School in the early 20th century ultimately rejected tonality itself, the foundation of nearly all Western music up till then. Theodor Adorno’s student compositions, important in the development of his musical philosophy, show the influence of Alban Berg, his teacher. Adorno’s Two Pieces for String Quartet (1926) employ free atonality and were not played from memory; the first explores sonata and rondo forms but commits to neither while the second develops its theme—set forth at the outset in a solo by the first violin—via variation technique. The second was, to me, slightly more engaging because the initial violin solo made the theme reasonably discernible, but I’m afraid I find this music arid, speaking to the brain only, not the heart. The performance was assured, and as Lincoln said, “people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” The artists are to be commended for surmounting the considerable difficulties of this music, displaying the same cohesiveness of ensemble and gesture as in the Haydn.
Following intermission, Robert Levin, Dwight P. Robinson, Jr. Professor of Humanities at Harvard, joined the quartet for Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81. Distinguished as both pedagogue and performer, Levin is best known for his completions of unfinished Mozart and Bach choral works as well as reviving 18th-century performance practice by improvising the cadenzas when performing Mozart’s piano concertos. Many in the audience were quite curious to hear how he would sound in Dvořák. Levin had an easy rapport with the Chiara in chamber playing of a very high order. All were responsive to the composer’s many colorful harmonies and the variegated moods they evoke. Dvořák was especially fond of the duskier colors of the lower strings, and Sirota’s viola and Beaver’s cello were telling in the more somber passages of the first and, particularly, second movement. In a work that, overall, is sunny and optimistic, the Dumka (lament) second movement stands out for its mournful beauty. Levin made the piano’s signature figure sound like a lonely bird, first as solo then as accompaniment to the lamenting theme of the viola and cello. The concluding decline as the musical line descends to the depths, getting ever quieter, was deeply affecting. The scampering Scherzo, subtitled Furiant (a Bohemian folk dance), was great fun as Fischer and Levin traded the giddy main theme. The middle section uses the same tune but greatly slowed down and in another key; the artists took us to a place of comforting reflection before returning to the opening hijinks. The final movement is dominated by the jaunty theme played initially by the first violin after a mock-pompous introduction. The Schubertian interplay of major and minor, present throughout the quintet, reaches a peak here, and in the brief fugue based on the opening theme the players managed to be serious and playful simultaneously. Following the brilliant conclusion of the quintet, the audience excitedly conveyed their great delight on their feet. Now one hopes there might be an unfinished work of Dvořák for Levin to tackle, preferably something the magnificent Chiara Quartet can play with him.