The Parker Quartet began its first season as Blodgett Artists-in-Residence on Friday night at Harvard University’s Department of Music. Their inaugural concert in the John Knowles Paine Concert Hall featured music of Haydn, Dutilleux, and Dvořák. Though the metrics were all there, it being their first outing in such a role may have prompted overreach. Their bow and string acumen made more obvious a shortage of cultural and chronological context given these three works.
Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, No. 5 (1797) of Franz Joseph Haydn found shiny surfaces, its four movements melded. Already in the opening movement, Allegretto-Allegro, everywhere there was opulence, stringed instruments tuned as one glistening engine. It was as though listening to the perfection that compact discs have introduced into the world of music-making. As with the first movement, the following Largo ma non troppo; cantabile e mesto took on that sheen. Silvery peals of the Parker Quartet enhanced Haydn exteriors and left it at that. The remote and rich key of F-sharp major to which Haydn adventured in order to find added warmth from all those sharps found the Parker looking somewhere else. That was more surprising than the music of the composer of the “Surprise Symphony.”
The Menuet: Allegro ma non troppo, absolutely tempered in tuning and string skill, missed being menacing enough in its trio section where the cellist leads and the others comment. Jocundity in the Finale: Presto was also minimized.
Parker carried over its erudition to Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit (1976). A quartet veiled in Bartók night music would furnish some background for the young quartet whose experience reaches well into the 20th century. Parker’s debut recording was of the second and fifth quartets of the Hungarian composer. The Parker won a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance with its recording of string quartets by modernist György Ligeti.
Daniel Chong and Ying Xue, violins, Jessica Bodner, viola, and Kee-Hyun Kim, cello, did play their inaugural Harvard concert with “pinpoint precision and spectacular sense of urgency” as extracted from a Boston Globe review appearing in the Parker Quartet’s program notes. Sonic exactness and sense of urgency being just about everywhere in the Dutilleux allowed relief only in those sustained polyphonies where coolness, near-gemlike resonance, satisfied. No doubt at all that these players love their instruments and having them fuse together. Yet, where was the night?
Dutilleux, whom I met at a Saturday morning composition class at L’École Normal de Musique de Paris back in the ’60s, exuded gentility and openness as much in his personality as in his teaching. The same holds true in his music—from an early tonal work with Romantic era affect, Le Loup, to a recent chamber work, Les Citations, a personalized pointillism, which the BSO Chamber Players adored. Always rejecting dogma and intolerance such as with the mid-20th century Serialists, Dutilleux’s life was a search for ingenuousness, innocence. In Parker’s performance, the seven nocturnal movements of “Thus the night” lost out to those qualities. Where was Dutilleux?
Exuberance marked the quartet’s performance of Antonin Dvořák’s String Quartet in A-flat Major, Op. 105 (1895), an exuberance manifesting itself in the body actions and gestures of the four highly expert string players. It was disappointing that this energy was not conveyed in their playing, however. Those contextual modalities of Dvořák that identify him as Czech and his Romantic era music escaped into a highly refined—and a too-close-to-the-chest—iteration.
A virtually full house called the Parker Quartet back for an encore: Adagio from Haydn’s Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5.
The Parker Quartet’s remaining concerts, scheduled for Sunday, November 2, Friday, February 20, and Friday, April 10, are free and open to the public at Paine Hall.