in: Reviews

July 4, 2014

An Arboretum of String Quartets at Tanglewood

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Last Monday the Tanglewood Music Center concerts kicked off with their annual String Quartet Marathon, 16 quartets showcasing this year’s string fellows. The performances all rose to a high technical standard, of course, and musically the readings had much to recommend them. There were many delights in the almost seven hours of musicmaking.

In years past, this event was held in the barn (my review from 2011) and spread across two days (as 2013). Consecutive day trips or affordable lodging were problematic, so I only ever heard two of the three concerts. This year, with the offerings on one day, I had the opportunity to hear it all. It makes for a very long day. Scheduled for 10am, 1pm, and 4pm, each concert was to last two hours; the first two ran over. So the breaks were shortened. Lunch was a hasty affair and none of the concession stands was open for the season (I had packed my own), a pity, as many of us would have loved tea or coffee mid-afternoon. The complete schedule is here.

Each quartet took the name of a tree. I don’t remember conventions from years past, although I did overhear an audience member talk about the year (last?) the quartets took the names of cars. In any event, this year I think the musicians are not budding arborists so much; the nearer antecedent seems to be the grounds parking lots: Oak, Maple, Hickory, Sycamore, Beech, and so on.

Braving any hardships was altogether worthwhile, given the wealth of music. The concert format remained the same: each quartet played a few movements of a Haydn work and a few movements of another. In my memory, years past saw each group do Haydn first, but this time the order was mixed, the results less a chronology of the genre and more a celebration of the protean form. The Pine Quartet offered an exciting reading of Haydn’s Lark (Op. 64 No. 5) in its entirety, and the Sycamore Quartet performed all of Op. 50 No. 3, full of wit and fun. The quartets by other composers included Beethoven, Schumann, and Schubert and also lesser-heard and more-recent works. Bartók, Janáček, and Dvořák rubbed shoulders with Sibelius, Brahms, and Mendelssohn, but also Irvine Fine and George Rochberg. I regret not hearing all the quartets in their entirety, but listening to 16 groups perform 32 quartets in one day would tax the endurance of anyone. What enables such a marathon is precisely the high caliber of playing and musicianship that the TMC Fellows bring.

The morning program opened with the Sequoia Quartet performing the first half of Haydn’s Op. 50 No. 2, then turning to the opening movement (Allegro risoluto) of Irving Fine’s String Quartet (1953). (A gift from the late Verna Fine supported preparation of this work.) Autumnal music, it was a perfect foil to the overcast morning. Lyrical and intense, by turns flowing and agitated, at other times the music was slow-changing and foreshadowed the American minimalism of Steve Reich. I would like to hear the full quartet more often; I think it has much to offer us.

The Maple Quartet offered three movements of Haydn’s Frog Quartet (Op. 50 No. 6) along with the outer movements of Schumann’s F-Major, Op. 41 No. 2, a well-chosen pairing with the dotted and syncopated rhythms in each work, executed perfectly, commenting on the other. I was enraptured by the Chestnut Quartet’s exciting and nuanced reading of the last half of Richard Strauss’s String Quartet, Op. 2. In addition, the gorgeous cello theme in the Andante cantabile called to mind a theme from Prokofiev’s Jazz Suite and led me to meditate the connections between these composers, an idea I had not entertained previously.

The morning program closed with the Hickory Quartet presenting the inner movements of George Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 4 (1977). The Fuga was lush and reverential, while the Serenade was very much in a 20th-century vein with crunchy harmonies and cacophonous passages while still remaining true to the spirit of a serenade. It was a treat to hear Rochberg’s music.

Another highlight was the Beech Quartet in the first and fourth movements of the 17-year-old Schubert’s String Quartet in B-flat, D.112. Fabulous bow work and tight ensemble made the music shimmer. The first half of Beethoven’s Harp enjoyed a mature reading by the Cedar Quartet, being by turns both delicate and overwrought. The Ash Quartet in the last half of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3 in D (Op. 44 No. 1) played with judicious rubato in the Andante espressivo ma con moto followed by an ecstatically fast Presto con brio. The Birch Quartet (the only group to perform standing) offered the outer movements of Haydn’s Op. 50 No. 1 (skipping set to music, ending on a joke, executed beautifully here) and Bartók’s String Quartet No. 6, I and III. The first movement flirts with swing and the third encodes 20th-century industrial sounds, sharing a penchant for sarcasm with Shostakovich.

It promises to be a stellar season at the Tanglewood Music Center, and I look forward to hearing more of these musicians bring notes to glorious life.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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