in: Reviews

July 11, 2014

Rich Sound from the Calder Quartet

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Calder Quartet (Autumn DeWilde photo)

Calder Quartet (Autumn DeWilde photo)

Exploring states of interiority on a generous scale from Mozart and Brahms and in condensed miniatures from Webern and Don Davis, the Calder Quartet gave us a program of depth and subtlety  Thursday evening in Rockport. They were joined by Marcus Thompson in the last work, the Brahms 2nd string quintet. Throughout, the elegance of the playing, combined with the intimate venue of Shalin Liu Performance Center movingly.

From the start of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 14, K. 387, the first of his famous Haydn quartets, the rich sound of the Calder was striking, the playing wonderfully balanced and nuanced. In the Haydn-like Menuetto the off-beat refusal to conform to the dance rhythm was especially emphasized, with the contrasting trio forceful and dramatic. The Andante can often sound operatic, but that aspect was downplayed here, giving it a more effective mystical serenity. The Jupiter-like finale with its fugal passages was strong and emphatic, alternating with soft, vulnerable moments followed by dark outbursts. The emotional impact of the performance brought to light Mozart’s expressiveness in homage to Haydn, but also pointed prophetically to Beethoven’s late quartets, reminding us of Mozart’s towering stature.

Webern’s Five Pieces for String Quartet, Op. 5, are intricate and complex, miniatures so fleeting that you wish they would be played through twice. In this performance the Expressionistic plunge into subjectivity came through as a reaction to the encroaching tide of industrialism, with each of the five movements dominated by a particular state of soul: the first movement alienated, disoriented, beaten about from all directions. The second movement was triste and seemed to portray a state of deep melancholia, the third paranoid mania, then a feeling of tense sadness compounded with fear in the fourth. The tender final movement evoked sad regrets, fading away softly into non-existence.

With night descending in the background, blurring the boundary between sky and ocean, the Calder Quartet turned to Vexed, by American composer Don Davis. Based on a striking and rather humorous portrait “The Vexed Man” by Mozart’s near-contemporary Franz Messerschmidt, the brief work alternates tormented buzzing reminiscent of Sophocles (and Sartre) with demonic outbursts and nearly inaudible fine-grained sonic textures. The pressure of inner demons barely contained dissolved at the end into faery wisps. In Vexed the spirit of Vienna returned in the form of a keen grasp of the grotesque that inhabits the fringes of our subjectivity.

Is anyone more Expressionist than Brahms when he succumbs to his own tormented genius? The second half of the program was devoted entirely to the Brahms’s beloved  Quintet No. 2 in G Major, for two violins, two violas and cello Op. 111. Violins and violas were arrayed respectively on either side of Eric Byers’ cello, which anchored the work throughout, allowing the higher strings to soar like uncontrollable flames. This was Brahms at his exuberant best, played with passionate élan. The opening theme was bright and glowing, the playing clear and totally coherent. The Adagio subtly included a bit of tzigane-like sadness, especially toward the end of the movement, preparing the way for the more overt references in the final movement. The Poco Allegretto was played with an effective emphasis on the intricate rhythms and counter-rhythms, leading to the joyous Vivace finale, played as riotous country dance. A strongly emphasized contrast between alternating soft passages and sudden outbursts of energy set up the concluding csárdás as a natural and even inevitable ending. The performance was exceptionally true to Brahms, bringing out all of his subjective complexity− a tour de force from start to finish.

The Calder Quartet returns to Rockport this Saturday night with a program of Adès, Janáĉek and Smetana.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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