The two times I have seen the Calder Quartet they have impressed me as a particularly intellectual group. This is partly due to their appearance: Saturday night in Rockport they appeared black suits and narrow ties that had a bit of 1950s think tank about them. Their adventurous repertoire—Thomas Adès, Leoš Janáček and Bedřich Smetana—confirmed what the suits and ties suggested, and their interpretive clarity and voice clinched it. Even violinist Andrew Bulbrooks’ prefatory comments before each piece were cogent and brief, making enjoyable a practice I can usually do without.
Adès first started making an international reputation in the 1990s with a number of recordings and a reputation as a compositional prodigy (he was born in 1971). Those first recordings did not leave much of an impression on me, but the Calder’s performance of The Four Quarters (2010), certainly did. Complex and varied, I found it difficult at this first hearing to connect the four movements to one another, but each of them was fully engaging on its own. Adès voice in the composition is post-modern and post-tonal: the materials and fabric work tonally but often in constant suspension, with harmonic turns and dissonant friction deepening what is often very simple raw material. In the first movement, “Nightfall”, two note intervals intertwine and evolve intervallically, rhythmically and with varying articulation. It conjured an obscure landscape whose appearance changed with the differing light of evening. “Morning Dew” was likened by violinist Andrew Bulbrook to the piano player etudes of Conlon Nancarrow – and once that suggestion was made, it was hard not to hear the densely polyphonic forest of pizzicato as a tribute bordering on ventriloquism. “Days” flirted with more overtly Romantic gestures over a rhythmic ostinato, but always deferred resolution, and ended questioningly. “The Twenty-Fifth Hour”, the final movement, earned its name from its 25/16 time signature. This was something of a miracle of complexity and simplicity joined—despite the uneven underlying pulse the movement danced, the odd groupings of beats giving it an attractive uneven swing, never quite stable but always sure of its footing. The Calders seem ideally suited to this music, allowing profound emotion to develop from the deep structure of the composition, playing with transparency. Though the Shalin Liu can be a little harsh on upper strings, the Calders seem to know how to use this to their advantage. While their tone could not be called lush, they took advantage of the acoustic to produce a sound that was both expressive and pointed.
Janáček’s second quartet, “Intimate Letters”, is a radically different beast but was rendered with similar success. Written in the last year of the composer’s life, in the wake of a consuming but apparently platonic crush on a much younger woman, it is four movements of tumult, rapid-fire emotion, and in the last movement something like self-flagellation. In the final years of his life, Janáček discovered how to master the art of repetition: his music repeats at many levels at once, from whirling ostinatos to melodies that continually invoke themselves to whole sections that appear nearly verbatim. It is a skill that Schubert, Bruckner and Sibelius all had in different measure, though none of them yoked it to the pure ferocity that Janáček did. If the Calders playing Adès can evoke immense feeling from complex structure, the Calders playing Janáček succeed in uncovering the mysteries of structure from a text almost overwhelmed by intensity. They do not do so by stinting on expression: first violinist Benjamin Jacobsen attacked the stratospheric lines given to him fearlessly, and the piece as a whole filled the room several times with Janáček’s outbursts. No matter how wild the feeling, one could always hear the lines fitting together, ostinatos and melodies meshing together like gears, sudden tempo and tonal shifts happening precisely, new directions clearly articulated from the start (there are eleven major tempo indications in the four movements of the piece).The ensemble is so committed to the text of the piece that don’t paper over weaknesses: the composition outruns itself in the final movement, and a repeated gesture that can only be heard as “scratching out” suggests the composer used sound-painting as a last expressive resort. The Calders, especially cellist Eric Byers, attacked that moment as if it were Penderecki, a vicious ugly sound that tore a hole in the musical continuity. The old, frustrated, consumed Janáček wanted this sound, and for better or worse the Calders gave it everything they had.
Janáček is a major influence on Adès, though what is rough-hewn in the Czech is refined and purified in the Englishman. Like Janáček, Smetana was also Czech, and the final work on the program was his “From My Life”, was also autobiographical. However, he didn’t quite fit in with the other two, with an aesthetic more overtly Romantic and less intellectually engaging. After the exertions of the first half, it was either a welcome rest or a bit of a let-down, depending on how much energy you had left. I found the performance a little distant, though still filled with notable moments: in particular, the playing of violist Jonathan Moerschel, whose solo lines were beautifully shaped, commanding attention but never overstated. The work famously recreates a moment of tragedy, with the first violin recreating the piercing high note that intruded on Smetana in his 50th year and which announced his impending loss of hearing. The Calders’ playing is so thoroughly considered that this moment of drama felt overstated – it provoked smiles of recognition in the audience rather than the horror it was meant to indicate – but the denouement was devastating, as the movement brought itself to a limping conclusion, a broken finish.
The vigorous audience response at the end of the evening earned us the gorgeous “O Albion”, a movement from Adès first quartet Arcadiana. It is an evocation of beauty from precise juxtaposition of similar material, distantly reminiscent of Elgar’s “Nimrod”. Its immediate appeal requires careful craftsmanship and execution from both composer and players—and so make an ideal encore for this impressive foursome.