Another day, another chamber concert, another high-caliber quartet performance. For this Harvard Blodgett Series event last Sunday, artists-in-residence Parker Quartet put forth a program of Prokofiev, Kurtag, and Schubert, and the product sounded even more together and accomplished than their work a month-plus prior. I had kvetched in a BMInt comment about some smeary ensemble and lack of group intra-listening, and in those regards this concert was utterly perfect, unisons and all similar attacks easily matching today’s highest string quartet standards. Watching and listening to the Parker make for an extraordinarily secure musical experience.
The Prokofiev Quartet No. 2 sailed out into Paine Hall with a decidedly French accent, updated Debussy, an association I’d never explicitly made before, although that impression surely results from ignorance on my part. From 1941, saturated with folksong, the work has no shadow of war upon it. The Parker handled the spiky attacks and open chords, from the homophonic passages to melodies over accompaniment, with excited aplomb; the result was gorgeous and triumphal at the same time. Agitations and cries of contentment. Was it slightly smoothed? That may just be the Parker way. (My colleague David Patterson felt that the ensemble’s September performance of Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit perhaps lacked something of both darkness and innocence, not quoting him, and this may be a theme.)
The group’s dedication to and advocacy of contemporary music are widely known and respected. The center of the afternoon was the 6 Moments musicaux of the 88-year-old Hungarian composer György Kurtág, with whom the Parker studied this 2005 piece. It is an intense, terse, spiky, evidently suffering and deeply suffered collection; first violinist Daniel Chong’s notes about the content are very helpful, although alas not online. Let me therefore steal (because briefer) words from the Globe’s evocative Jeremy Eichler and David Weinberg, about other Kurtág: “dissonant insectoid skittering … luminous moonscapes sketched with silvery harmonics, … after great struggle … sublime purity of a single note” and “hermetic, skeletal … epigrammatic pieces … stray melodic gestures.” While the music is difficult and private, the guy sounds like a bear to work with, Chong reporting that “If a single note lacked content or conviction he would immediately well up with frustration and become distraught…. He demanded a level of microscopic listening that left no note unturned …. His highest compliment took the form of allowing us to play the next phrase.” 6 Moments musicaux seemed to me a tremendous work, barks and bites, alternations of fantastic counterpoint, atmospheric ornithology, aching and lyrical charm, unto the quietest adieux fadeout ever, as still as public performance can be. The Parker performed the collection with commitment and utmost expressivity, and I trust they will record it, as I need to hear it further.
Maybe because the Kurtág took it out of them to an extent, or maybe I’m speaking for myself only, the Schubert Quartet in D Minor D.810 (Death and the Maiden) did not fully grip. After those opening bolts, again played perfectly, much of it seemed a little fast, some passages suboptimally gelled, other balances weighted away from the staunch and steady Jessica Bodner and Kee-Hyun Kim, violist and cellist, toward Chong and and second violin Ying Xue, who played with great beauty and notable softness withal. Here and there a variation in the second movement’s gloom was indistinct. Whatever. I don’t know how readily anyone can essay that Schubert to close that program, but such is the overflowingly rich state of affairs, music and performance, in this golden quartet age.
Speaking of which, the Parker Paine Hall concerts are well-attended, and so I would urge all those who enjoy them so much to mosey down the road to MIT’s Kresge Auditorium at the end of next week, November 14th, to take in another installment in the Jupiter Quartet’s Beethoven cycle, which is surprisingly under-attended but every bit as soul-stirring.