Rockport Chamber Music Festival presented the Parker Quartet in a Sunday afternoon program including Haydn, Dutilleux, and Dvořák’s second quintet with Thomas van Dyck. Graduates of New England Conservatory, quartet has been touring since 2002 and is known for performing in unconventional venues. They have also been honored with a Chamber Music America commissioning grant, resulting in Capriccio, an hour-length work by American composer Jeremy Gill.
The concert opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5, Hob. III: 35 (1772). From the earliest set which the composer called “string quartets,” we hear new directions in musical style, including a use of fugal passages in the finale. Opening Allegro moderato, this reading took a slightly slower tempo as the quartet reveled in the harmonies and grasped for profundity. There was deft phrasing and tight ensemble playing evident from the opening. The Minuetto proceeded at a slow pace, as did the third movement Adagio; the homogeneity in tempo between these three movements was disconcerting. The Finale: Fuga a due soggetti opened quiet and quick and much of this movement was pianissimo until an abrupt loudening of dynamic near the end.
Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit (1973–1976) is in seven sections played straight through over some 18 minutes. Daniel Chong spoke from the stage about the overall structure of the work, including the “fan-shaped writing” (contrary motion between voices) and crystalline aspects of this work which is indebted to Bartók’s “night music” and Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Proceeding from a pile-up of open fifths through Dutilleux’s “progressive growth,” this quartet sketches the vastness of galaxies through its musical, especially harmonic, minimalism. This music is a slow unfurling, like the nighttime stars becoming visible in the gloaming light. Pizzicato notes, like shooting stars or comets, and the use of extended technique expand the sonic language. The ensemble rose to the technical challenges here and the vastness came through in this performance. While there was intensity and focus on each line, a sense of the larger whole was lacking: this was deep space rather than a cosmos.
Following intermission bass Thomas van Dyck joined for Dvořák’s String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 77 (1875/1888). The Allegro con fuoco was lively with the bass adding depth and resonance. The Scherzo: Allegro vivace retained a strong dance character. The Poco andante is nocturnal music, the inverse of the Scherzo. The Finale: Allegro assai is a dance to inevitable end which it valiantly tries to postpone. The musicians really shone in the third movement, but there was no encore.
Since the quartet is an established and bona fide ensemble, it was surprising that there were some intonational discrepancies between upper and lower voices throughout this concert, and not all, I think, were attributable to the sun shining through the glass wall behind them. More disquieting to me were the musical choices. The focus on novel dynamics took precedence over matters of phrasing, theme, and structure. I was left with a greater impression of the Parker Quartet trying to say something specific to them. Any performance of classical music is an act of sublimation or substitution or transference (perhaps, when done well, transcendence)—the goal is for the performer to lose herself in the music and so re-present the music to the audience. What I heard here was less about the music and more about the performers. The foursome will assume the Blodgett residency at Harvard in the fall. Perhaps the players will use this opportunity to expand their musicality.