in: Reviews

August 10, 2015

One Weekend, Two Quartets


Maverick_horse_This past weekend Maverick Concerts offered two different string quartets in highly contrasting programs. Everything possible seemed to be different, except for the consistently excellent quality.

Saturday evening the Miró Quartet made a welcome return to Maverick with a fascinating and challenging program, late quartets of Schubert and Beethoven. As the violist John Largess pointed out in a brief talk, Schubert’s D. 887 and Beethoven’s Op. 131 were written at exactly the same time (Schubert’s quick work overlapping some of Beethoven’s), about a mile and a half apart

It’s commonplace to describe the late quartets of Beethoven as visionary and pioneering, and I am not about to dispute those descriptions. Yet heard in such close juxtaposition, Schubert’s work seems even more innovative. Although Beethoven abandoned the usual four-movement form in this work, the actual sound of the music seems almost traditional compared with Schubert’s radical use of dramatic harmonies and stark juxtapositions. The clever placing of Schubert’s music first on the program helped to emphasize the contrasts in the two works, lending a further fascination to the qualities of the individual pieces and of the performances.

This excellent ensemble gave us completely worthy renditions of both works. The Schubert was distinguished by fervor, shown in exquisite dynamics and many other ways, along with excellent balance and poise. Although the playing was “big,” it never violated the bounds of the music and sometimes almost gave the impression of classical period instruments. If I cite the extraordinary sustained soft playing in the second movement, that’s only one positive detail among very many.

Beethoven was similarly well served. Again I thought of poise in the opening Adagio. The various quirky transitions, especially in the third movement, were handled extremely well, preserving their shock value. In general this quartet’s playing seemed suave, but the power of the concluding Allegro was almost brutal. A memorable evening!

The Danish String Quartet, making its Maverick debut, gave us another memorable concert on Sunday afternoon. The program was drastically different from the Miró’s: Nielsen, Adès, and Shostakovich. I’ve never thought Nielsen’s string quartets are his best work, and the Quartet No. 1, in G Minor, Op. 13, is quite early Nielsen (age 24), written in an idiom closer to DvoÍák than to Nielsen’s glorious late symphonies. But it’s an entertaining piece, and the DSQ played it with lots of energy and obvious affection. I particularly liked the roughness of the Scherzo, which came out sounding like a Danish barn dance.

Adès was also very young (23) when he wrote his Arcadiana, Op. 12, a 20-minute suite of seven movements. From the first movement, we are introduced to the composer’s collage technique; it includes pictorial elements, slides, and microtones, and seems to change style as often as a traditional composer would change harmony. Tonality comes and goes in this work like a stranger trying to find the entrance to your house. Some chaos in the second movement reminded me of Ives, and later in the movement complexities sounded rather like Carter. I wouldn’t say this work is a masterpiece, but it certainly holds the attention, and I thought the composer saved his best for last, a movement (“Lethe”) which uses harmonics and slow sustained music to suggest the river of forgetfulness for which it is named. The performance seemed completely dedicated and the audience responded with great enthusiasm.

We’ve heard plenty of Shostakovich at Maverick over the years, but his String Quartet No. 9, Op. 117, isn’t one of the Greatest Hits. Perhaps it should be. In this extremely vivid, persuasive performance, it sounded like one of the composer’s masterworks, and maybe it is. Like Schubert, Shostakovich sometimes seems to be writing almost straight from the subconscious. The intensity of the writing and the performance in the last movement was truly frightening.

The interpretive personalities and styles of these two ensembles seem to me quite distinct and different. Yet the Miró Quartet had plenty of rough vigor when the music required it, and the Danish String Quartet could be quite smooth and lovely. It was a gratifying weekend of music.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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