Ashmont Hill Chamber Music, the Dorchester-based presenter, survived a near-death experience and has, under its new-ish artistic director Mary Beth Alger, resumed high-quality programming that should bring more people down to this corner of our city. Sunday afternoon’s offering by the young Æolus Quartet (violinists Nicholas Tavani and Rachel Shapiro, violist Gregory Luce, and cellist Alan Richardson) with clarinetist Todd Palmer constituted the most recent evidence.
The two programmed pieces, Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major, Op. 105, and Osvaldo Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, at first blush don’t seem to have much connection. The former, Dvořák’s last-composed quartet—indeed, his last essay in chamber music—is on its surface an abstract construction along conventional lines, with hat tips to late Beethoven, while the latter, one of the Massachusetts-resident Argentine’s most popular pieces, is an exploration of Jewish history, psychology and mysticism. Yet, the Dvořák reveals that its concern, beyond its formalities, is the relation of the Czech people to its history and culture, preoccupation Dvořák had always dwelt on but that intensified in his mind during his three-year sojourn in the US; he began writing the quartet before returning home.
While the form of the quartet is the standard “international” style of his day—and, perhaps, the constraints of the received traditions of writing in standard forms informed the composer’s decision to move on to the operas and tone poems that comprised the remainder of his output in the last decade of his life—the content celebrates Czech particularities, from fiery public declarations to lyrical folksong to bumptious peasant dances. After taking a couple of minutes to settle its intonation, the Æolus responded with youthful gusto rather than elegant refinement, but with keen ensemble cohesion. Tavani indulged a predilection for portamento, most notably in the second-movement scherzo. The slow movement saw fine attention to long melodic lines, a lovely passage in which Shapiro brought out a lilting accompaniment figure, and a mellow richness in Luce’s part. The bouncy and playful finale carried intense highlights in a race to the finish.
Palmer, who like the quartet calls New York home (but who probably should move to Boston, he is such a frequent sight on our concert stages), introduced Golijov’s 1994 work, which he recorded with the St. Lawrence Quartet in 2002, as one of the greatest chamber works of the late 20th century. His point has merit: unlike the oh-so-hip-and-cool detachment of so many composers of our era, Golijov has never been averse to making big, emotional connections, whether in the Jewish-themed pieces like Isaac or his Latin American influenced material such as his Pasión según San Marcos. Of course, the clarinet quintet gets this affect naturally from its subject matter, the writings of Rabbi Yitzhak (Isaac) Saggi Nahor of 12th-13th century Provence. The blind rabbi was noted for his contributions to Kabbalistic philosophy, a mystical linking of the divine presence with symbols derived from the Hebrew alphabet. Golijov constructed the quintet in three central movements, sandwiched by a prelude and postlude with similar musical material, though presented in different styles. The composer thought of the work as representing three languages used by Jews over the millennia, the prelude and first movement in Aramaic, the second movement in Yiddish and the third and postlude in classical Hebrew; the stylistic changes these represent are striking, with Middle-Eastern cantillation effects in the first, full-throated earthy klezmer in the second, and a stately yet awed formality in the third.
Palmer and the Æolus gave everything one could hope for. A palpable tension pulled between the laid-back hipness of the Kronos Quartet in their premiere recording, available here, or even the St. Lawrence recording (movement 2 here), and the where the clarinetists (David Krakauer and Palmer, respectively) were heading. The quartet fully matched Palmer’s intensity (he joked that as a Methodist he really shouldn’t know anything about klezmer—we might add “or mysticism”—but that study can overcome all obstacles), as he tore up the air on four different clarinets (the usual B-flat and A, plus a C for the klezmer sound and a bass, on which he brilliantly executed the highest pitches we’ve ever heard on one). The strings, too, were well on top of Golijov’s more evocative effects, like saltando in harmonics. Our notes are full of expressions like “visceral,” “emotive, “soulful” and so forth. Bottom line, a riveting performance of a powerful work.