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What the Gardener Sang


Sunday’s record-breaking heat in Woodstock gave us anxiety about the temperature in the barn-like Maverick Concert Hall. But fans circulated the air silently and steadily, assisted by the occasional breeze straying in from outside and whispering of coolness and serenity.

 “Tchaikovsky and Friends” from the Danel Quartet of France opened with Beethoven’s String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2, an early work from the beginning of the composer’s days in Vienna. It’s only the second of his many, many string quartets; it is redolent of Haydn and gives a good foretaste of Beethoven’s future glories. The Danels caught the audience right away with the courtly and lively tone of the first movement. In the midst of the Adagio Cantabile second movement, the first violinist (and namesake, Marc Danel) made much of an extended, elaborately ornamented, virtuosic solo backed up steadily by his admirable cohort. M. Danel turned halfway toward the audience for this, and we realized that he and his colleagues were very much playing to us. His bodily gestures invited us in. You can’t ask for more from a string quartet.

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 13 has been called “a hymn to the viola,” and Romanian violist Vlad Bogdanas set the tone from the beginning: searing, anguished, unrelenting. The occasional percussive effects in the cello and second violin, and recurring pizzicati in all the voices, repeatedly called us to notice: “Listen up, people, this is serious.” The violist bound the four together; his keen eye together with the careful ensemble playing repaid every minute of our close attention.

The second half got underway with Tchaikovsky’s Quartet Movement in B-Flat Major. This hymnlike, chordal tune recalled the homophonic textures of Eastern Orthodox liturgical music. The Danels offered us a splendid introit to the transports of the First (full) String Quartet.

Both the Quartet Movement and the String Quartet No. 1 incorporate tunes gathered from gardeners working on the great estate of Tchaikovsky’s sister, deep in the Ukrainian countryside. Music Director Alexander Platt noted their strong roots in Ukraine, where the composer regularly spent a great deal of time. M. Danel once again invited us in with his low-key but ardent body language, conveying both zeal and heat. It could be the most fun one can have sitting down.

The Danel Quartet describes itself as being “of France,” but it stands firmly in the Russian tradition of quartet playing, replete with full-bodied passion, agile as needed, but always securely rooted…except for M. Danel himself, of course, who courted the audience throughout with big gestures and extravagant body language.

The Tchaikovsky ended with joie de vivre and a resolution of the dramatic tension, all executed deftly and with deep feeling. The Danels encored with a reprise of the well-known and heartfelt second movement of the First Quartet. M. Danel explained that this recognized the work’s Ukrainian roots and extended his and our solidarity with that war-torn country. Arts and culture can stand in the face of tyranny and oppression, he averred. The encore started with its sorrowful Andante cantabile, a precursor, perhaps, of the Barber Adagio for Strings, our own country’s hymn of national mourning. A listener was seen to weep a little. That is the power of this music.

Mary Fairchild lives in Rosendale, New York, after a long career as a host at WQXR, WNYC, WMHT (Schenectady), and WPLN (Nashville). She has for some 20 years been writing program notes for Vladimir Feltsman’s PianoSummer at New Paltz. Before being called by Kalliope, the Muse of Eloquence and of Writing About Music, she worked as a financial editor and manager of investor relations in Wall Street.

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