Vaughan Williams’s mystical, ineffable, inevitable On Wenlock Edge yesterday motorvated the luxurious express which Marlboro Music’s director Mitsuko Uchida had dispatched from the wilds of Vermont to Calderwood Hall. It fell to violinist Carmit Zori to add the complementary coaches. Her first inclination, Zori told us afterward, was to put together an all-British conveyance by adding the Elgar String Quartet, but for Uchida that ran the enterprise off the rails. Zori’s second choice made for a most compelling and mutually informative pair of travelmates for Vaughan Williams: Haydn out of London and Beethoven channeling the Isles.
Musicians from Marlboro makes magic in large part because of how well its polished soloists listen to one another. Thus we expected much from a week-old, ad-hoc quartet formed of Green Mountain colleagues violinists Michelle Ross and Carmit Zori, violist Rebecca Albers, and cellist Alice Yoo. In Haydn’s String Quartet Op 76 No. 5 (1797) the foursome produced sumptuous tones with warmth and generosity of expression. No perfunctory Haydn opener this; from the outset it felt deeply engaged and in the moment.
The Globe’s ever fresh Matthew Guerrieri had interesting thoughts about Haydn’s choice of F-sharp Major for the second movement. To my ears, the brightening and darkening of the timbres through the modulations were more interesting than the mere presence of so many black notes. The night before, by the way, I asked cellist Bion Tsang, playing for the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, about the key’s significance for string players. It’s difficult, awkward and dark, he said, and by coincidence his Ponce / Heifetz “Estrellita” encore is in that key because the devilish violinist/arranger wanted to discourage rivals.
BMInt contributor Mark DeVoto elaborates thus:
There’s a tradition that Debussy’s ‘Printemps,’ for orchestra, in F-sharp Major, was refused by the evaluation committee at the Conservatoire when he sent it to Paris as an envoy from Rome, purely on the ground that it was in the “unplayable” key of F-sharp major. The committee probably forgot all about Haydn’s 45th Symphony, which ends in six sharps. But Haydn’s Largo in op. 76/5 is probably a first in the string quartet literature. There are no open strings in that scale, so there’s the possibility of a quasi-muted overall sound, without actual mutes of course. The other movements are all in D major, a strongly violinistic key because of the open strings—look at the big violin concerti (Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Lalo et al.). On the other hand, as the F-sharp major movement modulates through several keys with mode changes, C-sharp minor, E major, E minor, G major etc. and back to F-sharp, there’s a brightening of the timbre because in those distant keys there are more open strings.
The impetus for Beethoven’s commission to set Scottish and Irish ditties (Haydn also arranged some) came from Edinburgh collector (ethnomusicologist?) George Thompson. And the master delivered himself up of some marvelous part songs, duets and solos with glamorous and rather sophisticated accompaniments of piano trios (sometimes with flute) to a grateful publisher. Giving these simple songs dramatic significance was man of the hour the tenor Nicholas Phan. He dealt with the vagaries of the wraparound audience by directing his vocal effusions mostly at 45 degrees from the main axis, and directly, and almost solely towards ISGM music director Scott Nickrenz. The love stories and soldiers’ tales came to us as though from a virile belletrist. Phan’s vocal resources spanned the divide between the drawing room and the theater in indrawing manner. Whether declamatory or intimate, whether as swain or dying soldier, he appealed to our better angels, making of these modest songs great art. His partners Roos and Yoo and pianist Lydia Brown (warm of voice and lapidary of phrase) were onboard with every nuance.
The journey continued from Ireland to England via Vaughan Williams On Wenlock Edge, a deeply moving setting of poems from Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad.” The ensemble of string quartet and piano gave an orchestral support that permitted Phan operatic heft at times. Indeed, he was never Pearish or preciously pastoral, as are some in this role. Rather he embodied the machismo of the regretfully nostalgic vagabond in Vaughan Williams’s five-years-earlier Songs of Travel (from R.L. Stevenson). Moments to treasure included Phan’s masterful diminuendo on “…the winds’ twelve quarters”, in the second song, and the shimmering, characterful overture to the fifth song, which evokes larks and steeples. The extended postlude banished all sense of time and place.
Our final departure from haggis-and-neeps Beethoven to meat-and-potatoes Beethoven came from his String Quartet Op 59 No. 3, Razumovsky. Why this particular example? we asked Carmit Zori afterward. “It’s the easiest of the set, but it’s hardly easy.” Now sitting as first, Zori participated in a performance that reminded us how simpatico soloists can sometimes channel egos into the realization of alert and powerful joint enterprise. Their beauty of tone, replete with portamenti and other Romantic effects, worked splendidly on this day in this place. From the first slow notes of the introduction, the four artists proclaimed that no quotidian interpretation would be forthcoming. To be sure, their rhythmic flexibility and risk-taking got this ensemble to 90% of what an established string quartet can produce. And I don’t know why, since it doesn’t make sense, but Beethoven’s relentlessly interrupted final coda reminded me of bagpipes.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.