in: Reviews

July 4, 2016

Jupiter Quartet Out of This World

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For Sunday’s second classical concert of the 2016 Maverick Concerts series, the Jupiter String Quartet brought along pianist Ilya Yakushev for a program of near-celestial splendor.

I was highly interested to hear one of Beethoven’s Op. 18 quartets for the second week in a row. Last week the Escher String Quartet gave us a memorable performance of No. 1. The foursome brought us No. 6. Their approach wasn’t radically different from the Escher’s, but there were certainly differences. The Jupiter players Nelson Lee, violin ; Megan Freivogel, violin; Liz Freivogel, viola; adn Daniel McDonough, cello used a wide dynamic range, very pleasurable especially in the second movement, but their overall approach to the music was more modest, perhaps more Haydnesque—not a defect, just a difference. I thought the accents were a little undervalued in the Scherzo (the Eschers’ sforzandi were remarkable), but the orchestral sound of “La Malinconi” was quite striking, as was the cello’s articulation in the zippy opening movement. Quite satisfying music-making.

Not quite as satisfying as the amazing performance of Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, Metamorphoses Nocturnes, which followed! This work is early Ligeti (1953-54) and thus not as radically adventurous as the music he wrote later in his career. But it’s plenty adventurous enough, especially when you consider that it was written when the composer was living under a totalitarian regime which would have suppressed his music and probably its composer if it had been performed in public. (It never did get played until after Ligeti escaped from Hungary in 1956.) In the eight short movements played continuously, the foursome delineated the music so clearly that it was easy to tell when the sections changed. Playing with clarity and confidence, they simultaneously showed how the music was strongly grounded in tradition (especially the Hungarian folk idiom so beloved of Bartók) and how the composer’s imagination took him to new places. They also emphasized the music’s humor, especially in the “Tempo di Valse” which the composer described with understatement as “un poco capriccioso” but also elsewhere. The emphatic playing resulted in an unusually large number of broken bow hairs! The audience not only cheered but also broke out in chants of “More Ligeti! More Ligeti!” There’s only one more string quartet (more rad, from 1968) but plenty of other chamber music.

Jupiter Streing Quartet (file photo)

Jupiter String Quartet (file photo)

After intermission, Maverick’s music director Alexander Platt told it us had been his idea to follow the Ligeti immediately with Schubert’s famous Quartettsatz (quartet movement) of 1820, to emphasize how radical Schubert’s music is. That did happen, and the performance was fine, but I suspect I would have been happier with the Ligeti resonating in my memory through the intermission.

Yakushev joined the quartet for the closer, Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. Platt particularly likes the piano quintet format, but it’s pretty rare and  Shostakovich’s is the most recent one to become part of the repertoire. It’s a strange composition, starting out in tragic mode and eventually resolving into an almost frivolous carefree mood. Beginning with very big sound, the strings matched the strong fortes from the piano; it continued vivid all the way. Yakushev produced some rather brittle sound from the upper register of the piano but I think this was done on purpose to make musical points, especially in the Scherzo where the string players roughened their tone amazingly. Some moments of impure intonation from the first violin constituted mere flyspecks on this characterful performance. I probably mention them just to show that I was listening critically.

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

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