The formidable Jupiter String Quartet gave an ambitious program of Beethoven, Hindemith and Brahms in striking, engrossing, and dynamic performances at Shalin Liu Performance Center on Friday.
Hearing Beethoven’s first forays into a genre is often revelatory, be it symphonies or string quartets—one hears the obvious mastery of the form and the aesthetic conventions of the day, but is also rewarded by little gems of genius, seeds of creativity which would blossom into a Choral Symphony or an Op.131. Jupiter Quartet’s played its opener, Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 18 No. 3 in D Major (his first completed despite the number), to a tee; the first movement sounded fresh and cheery, with a youthful ebullience that pervaded even the minor themes and sections.
This effect, though refreshing and welcoming in the first movement, was less effective in the second. This may be nitpicking, but the rolling chordal texture which opens and appears often in the slow movement felt as if it had unexplored richness of tone, a potential standard not met. All was forgiven though by the concluding presto, which was played as a chiseled moto perpetuo without losing the occasional lightness or wit.
Hindemith’s Quartet No. 4, Op. 22 constituted a perfect vehicle for the ensemble to explore its greatest strengths. The fugal subjects of the first (and really every) movement allowed each player to employ a more soloistic timbre and pass the spotlight around. Even so, in this opening movement, the lines were crafted just a touch out of focus, a deliberate decision that resulted in the feeling of isolation amid the crowd so common in early 20th-century German music. The second movement scherzo was awash in Schostakowitschkeit, pertinent and obsessive in its rhythmic drive and riotous dissonance. Violist Liz Freivogel, impassioned amid the tumult, took the part the composer himself once played.
The third movement began with a searching solo by violinist Megan Freivogel set over a backdrop of impersonal pizzicati; the theme and the contour of the pizzicati returned and returned in this movement, each time in a different guise. The finale opened with a huge cello statement played by Daniel McDonough with the energy of a whole orchestra. This virtuosic venom in time infects the viola, which joins in the demonic dance. The brash counterpoint of a fugue is softened by Nelson Lee’s first violin entrance, and the work ends with a double surprise—a soft major chord, followed by a sweeping gesture played by all in unison.
Brahms’s Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51 No. 1 stood rightfully alone on the second half. As Brahms admitted to abandoning, and then destroying, 20 string quartets before being satisfied with his Op. 51 offerings, one is left to wonder what magnificent music was lost (or recycled) in the composer’s never ceasing quest for perfection. The result of all this refining is that that perfection is very nearly reached in this quartet, where every note, every rhythm, every harmony is necessary and everything beyond its singular aim is omitted, like Michelangelo removing from the block of marble any speck of dust that was not a lion.
Of course, as in all the great creations on Brahms, the result rivets; this quartet is exciting, sorrowful, sometimes witty and ultimately breathtaking. The first movement showed immediately how the entirety was conceived in a kind of orchestral universe of sound—yes, the players have distinct voices but one mostly hears a unity in which each plays a part, rather than an aggregation of solos. The second movement, in keeping with the best Brahms, arched in one organic phrase from start to finish.
The quartet’s work in this monument of the genre was superb; the immediacy of emotion and the ability to shift timbres fluidly throughout the undulating and relentless lines ensured that no technical challenge would preclude the composer’s intended effect from reaching—often grabbing—the audience. Herein though there is one other microscopic detail to nitpick, noticeable only due to Brahms’ supreme unity of sound and purpose. That occasional voices did not come along for the ride timbre-wise was understandable in a piece with as many technical challenges as this, but that it was frequently enough to be noticed from the first violin was surprising. That is not to say the interpretation was inexpert, indeed, the final moments were breathtaking, but rather to note that the ensemble’s style, at home in the Beethoven, where the leader’s line often is above the ensemble, or even the Hindemith, and where each has a soloist voice, was less effective in a Brahmsian universe.
Overall the concert enthralled, though one wonders if the group performed the three distinct masterworks in three distinct styles. The Jupiter Quartet returns Sunday afternoon at 5pm, joined by violist Andrés Cárdenes, cellist Anne Martindale Williams, and Rockport’s Artistic Director David Deveau on piano.