By any measure, opening night at the 35th Rockport Chamber Music Festival counted as an extraordinary affair. The superb Parker String Quartet, a favorite here, was appearing with the still-fabulous 92-year-old pianist, Menahem Pressler. Many Boston luminaries who had known the Parker four in their years as students at New England Conservatory populated the house.
Festively dressed and unusually upbeat, the crowd radiated gladness at opening of the 7th summer in the still-breathtaking Shalin Liu Performance Center. Rockport’s volunteer ushers (favorites of mine) welcomed us warmly. And a lovely post-concert reception at the Rockport Art Association topped things off. Rockport, under the direction of David Deveau, remains a must-be-there classical music destination, even if that entails battling the horrors of late Friday afternoon traffic.
Now in their thirties, the Parkers formed in their sophomore year at NEC, and have stayed together ever since, winning a Grammy for their recording of Ligeti quartets, winning several major competitions, and becoming Harvard’s Blodgett Artists-in-Residence the past year after several other prestigious residencies.
The opener, Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major, Opus 71, No. 2, HOB.III:70, seems to be a specialty of this foursome, and they made it a sparkle. I was immediately struck by the poise and beautiful playing of each of its members, a matching of energy and expressive beauty. This quartet is one of three Opus 71 quartets commissioned by Count Anton Georg Apponyi (1755-1817). First performed by Haydn’s colleague Johann Peter Salomon and three other string players during the winter of 1794 in a London concert, this quartet features some terrific first violin parts, played soulfully by Parker’s Daniel Chong.
Bela Bartók completed his popular Quartet No. 1, Opus 7, Sz. 40 in 1909, an amazing year by any measure, in which which the third piano concerto of Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss’ Elektra, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, Schoenberg’s Op. 11 Klavierstücke and Erwartung, and the first string quartets of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály came into being. The premiere of the first quartet came in the debut concert of the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet in Budapest on March 19, 1910, a program that also introduced the first quartet of Kodály. Bartok’s first quartet, still retaining moments of post-romanticism; according to Kodaly, it possessed “psychological unity… an intimate drama, a kind of ‘return to life’ of one who has reached the brink of the abyss. It is program music, but does not heed a program so clearly does it explain itself.”
Bartók’s passion for a young violinist, Stefi Geyer constituted his secret program. Alas, his love was unrequited, and the violin concerto that he wrote for her was locked away in a drawer and not published until after his death. A year after their parting, Bartók apparently recovered, and married someone else. Using a theme from that long-suppressed concerto, Bartók opens this quartet with what he himself calls a “funeral dirge,” in this case a slow fugue. Some consider it a four-part dirge with the quartet as pall-bearers for the death of his passion. Full of yearning and despair, this quartet received a splendidly affecting reading from the Parkers.
Who wouldn’t love the Dvorak Piano Quintet with this quartet, especially with the wonderful Menahem Pressler, the longtime pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio, and the backdrop of the ocean at sundown? What a lovely and loving performance! Pressler played like a pianist half his age, and seemed to be having the time of his life. Throughout, he attentively kept his eye on the violist, Jessica Bodner, whose solos throughout the evening were models of sensitivity and beauty. Truly, the same must be said of the other members’ solos. Daniel Chong, the first violinist, executed many very impressive solos, and I was particularly moved by the outpourings of the second violin, Ying Xue. Cellist Kee-Hyun Kim expressed compellingly throughout. But the real hero of the evening was Dr. Virendra Patel at Massachusetts General Hospital, who, as the brochure near the hall’s entrance explained, saved Pressler’s life two years ago when he had a life-threatening aneurysm in his thoracic aorta. Patel is one of the very few doctors who use a new grafting procedure rather than open heart surgery. “For me, to be able to continue the way of life I love—to be an artist and perform—is such a gift,” Pressler says. “God gave me the gift of music, and he gave Dr. Patel the gift of healing. The world is a better place for having a man life him in it.” Certainly, the same can be said for Pressler, who continues to bless us with his sublime gift of music.