Balance is always a concern of musical ensembles from duos to orchestras. Over my long history as a chamber music listener (I remember the Budapest String Quartet!) I have heard with pleasure the overall improvement in string quartet balance, particularly the Rise of the Viola to its fair prominence. But in all my years of listening, I can’t remember encountering the problem I heard in the Jupiter String Quartet’s concert at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock on August 5th: not enough first violin.
Nelson Lee wasn’t consistently swamped through the afternoon, but I quickly noticed in the opening movement of the Debussy String Quartet that I wasn’t hearing enough of the first violin. I was ready to attribute at least part of the problem to my position in the hall, near the stage and on the opposite side from the first violin. But in the second piece on the program, I heard plenty of first violin, leading me to suspect that the problem was some kind of interpretive miscalculation.
It wasn’t the only one I heard. This ensemble’s playing can be quite splendid, and I wouldn’t want to kick them out of town. But the approach to the Debussy Quartet seemed to me quite un-French, beefy in sound, sometimes just too loud and in general more suited to Brahms than Debussy. I also thought the third movement was a bit on the schmaltzy side. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were other listeners who loved this performance but I’m afraid I didn’t.
Despite the length of my listening career, I have so far managed to avoid becoming familiar with any music by the Canadian-American composer Sydney Hodkinson, who is now 84. His String Quartet No. 7, written for the Jupiter Quartet, was composed four years ago. Cellist Daniel McDonough gave us a brief, concise, and meaningful spoken introduction. But he seemed to think that listeners would have to steel themselves to the rigors of the first movement in order to get through to the more pleasing second and final movement. My reaction was the opposite. I liked the fierce energy and aggressive angry atonality of the first movement, full of sudden dynamics and other surprises. Here, incidentally, I could hear the first violin just fine. The second movement, a Passacaglia according to the composer, was much calmer, too calm for me. I found it just an interest-notch above boring. And even with the composer’s designation on the program, I was unable to hear this music as a Passacaglia. If there was in fact a bass theme repeating throughout the movement, the composer managed to hide it from me. Despite that reservation, I wound up with a positive impression of Hodkinson and would welcome a chance to hear more of his music.
Pianist Daniel Gortler, making his Maverick debut, took the stage after intermission to play the Piano Sonata No. 2 by Ned Rorem. I have very vague memories of hearing an ancient recording of this piece by the great American pianist Julius Katchen. Meeting it again didn’t thrill me. The first movement, based on a theme that sounded like a nursery tune, struck me as repetitive and meandering, Poulenc without his concentration. The Tarantella, I’m afraid, sounded downright silly. The Nocturne was more bland meandering, and the concluding Toccata so mild-mannered as to barely deserve the name. I like Gortler’s basic approach to the piano, especially his clarity of articulation. But he is willing to let his tone get edgy and clangy in the loudest passages, something I always find disturbing.
Gortler and the Jupiter Quartet collaborated on a generally satisfying performance of the great Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44, one of my favorite pieces of chamber music and probably one of yours too. Bless them for taking all the marked repeats! I did have a few reservations. Again, in some passages the first violin didn’t project enough. Gortler’s occasional clang was a little disturbing when it occurred. And for some reason the players indulged in some excessive ritards in the first movement although not elsewhere. I know Schumann is a “romantic” and flexibility is part of the game, but I don’t like to have the momentum of this movement disturbed as much as it occasionally was. Still, I don’t want to come down too hard on this generally lovely and extremely well-integrated performance. Thanks, my friends, for the opportunity to hear this wonderful music so well played.
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.