Named for Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, the Jasper String Quartet has been in existence for a decade. Maverick Concerts’ Music Director Alexander Platt mentioned (or admitted?) during his introduction that he has known the ensemble’s playing for most of that time. On Sunday, July 23rd, the Jasper Quartet made its belated debut at Maverick Concerts, in Woodstock. What took so long? I’m sure its return will be welcome.
This concert was the third of three, on successive Sundays, pairing string quartets by Brahms and Aaron Jay Kernis. The ensemble opened with Haydn’s Quartet in G Major, Op. 76, No. 1. Although Haydn isn’t played as often these days as he ought to be, the Op. 76 Quartets aren’t exactly rarities. But I could listen to them every week if they were played with the freshness the Jaspers brought to their playing. The members of this ensemble, unlike some we’ve heard, don’t attempt to submerge their individual personalities in a kind of mind meld. Its ensemble is impeccable but you still hear four strong presences. I was immediately struck by the group’s cohesive, beautifully balanced playing along with the degree of individual expression in the opening movement. The Adagio had mesmerizing lyricism. In the Menuetto, actually more of a Scherzo despite its name, the group’s accents remained startling every time they came around, a welcome emphasis on Haydn’s irregularities and his sense of humor. The playfully eccentric trio showed off the humor even more. And the zippy finale, complete with exposition repeat, displayed the mock tragedy of Haydn’s humor as convincingly as I’ve ever heard it. Someday, perhaps, this ensemble will record Haydn’s Op. 76. I’ll buy it.
The order of the program was changed in order to accommodate Kernis, who had introduced his second quartet last week when the Parker Quartet played iat Maverick. Apparently Kernis enjoyed that interpretation so much that, as soon as the Boston Symphony finished playing his Musica Celestis at Tanglewood, he jumped into his car to rush over to Woodstock.
The Brahms String Quartet No. 2, in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2, began with surprisingly light, transparent sound, not the thick, chewiness one usually hears. But it was obviously a deliberate choice and definitely not a deficiency, as the Jaspers gradually thickened their sound to give us full Brahmsian weight. The opening Allegro was passionate, building in intensity but never too heavy. The Andante was songful and intense. Brahms’s typically syncopated rhythms were brought out clearly without heavy-handed emphasis. The ensemble’s balance was excellent throughout, with especially strong viola from Sam Quintal. Excellent Brahms!
Last week Kernis’s Second String Quartet, with 41 intriguing minutes, sometimes challenged my attention. Kernis spoke again about his work, but didn’t mention the term “Bartókian” which he had used last week. It would have been quite appropriate. In his String Quartet No. 3, “River,” Kernis uses Bartók’s five-movement arch form, along with many moments which reminded me of the earlier composer’s sound world. Its basic style is atonal lyricism, with frequent changes of mood and tempo in the first movement and later on as well. The second movement felt a little heavy in its use of sound effects. The long central movement used Bartókian bird calls and microtonal moments, eventually reaching a kind of controlled chaos. The large complex work(about 36 minutes) is full of arresting ideas and moments, but on first hearing I had trouble following its progression, but the foursome played the “River” as though they owned it, which in a sense they do since it was written for them.
The Jasper String Quartet has already recorded Kernis’s Quartets Nos. 1 and 2. If it gets around to No. 3, I’ll be waiting to hear it again.
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.