In what can only be described as a remarkable coincidence, the release of the New Orford String Quartet’s début recording couldn’t have been better timed. In less than two weeks, I will be in Parry Sound to hear the complete cycle of Beethoven’s chamber music masterworks (performed by three ensembles). Having another, fresh view of Op. 135 (the Penderecki Quartet has the honours in Muskoka) prior to my journey was a fine way to switch gears from plays and films.
Second on the disc, the F Major Quartet had more to say about the music and the performers. From violist Eric Nowlin’s opening phrase, notice was immediately served that this group is more than the sum of its individual parts. A compelling sense of line, purpose and attention to detail (almost all of the grace notes seemed fashioned on the same forge) made the Allegretto a constant pleasure. Only the lack of more appreciable “sighs” in the series of unison legato during an early transition could have improved the result.
The frequent cross rhythms of the Vivace were tossed off with aplomb even if the trap of shifting the pulse to the first of the eighth notes snared the talented players from time to time. The dynamic plan was also well executed until the very last note. Curiously, carefully, the composer never asks for more than forte (knowing full well what lies ahead). This sonic boom seemed at odds with the markings, startling the ear rather than bidding a sturdy adieu.
Then, the magic. If just the Lento assai, cantabile e tranquillo had been recorded, the disc would be well worth purchasing. Establishing the mystical world of D-flat major proved yet again the truth of the claim that the string quartet is chamber music’s most homogenous instrument. Nowlin, followed by 2nd violin Jonathan Crow (the violinists regularly share the first desk as was demonstrated in the Schubert), 1st violin Andrew Wan then cellist Brian Manker combined more to establish an aura than just a tonal centre. Wan took the melodic lead, crafting a truly mesmerizing line that belied its apparent simplicity and fully fulfilled the master’s instruction to quietly sing. Merci mille fois.
The concluding “Must it be?”; “It Must be!” motifs were worked out most convincingly. In many ways it is the compositional creativeness of this movement that makes it so hard to believe that Schubert’s G Major Quartet was written the same year and that the two geniuses shared Vienna as their home. Maddeningly for this writer (the level of playing and understanding is so high that mere quibbles form the basis of most of the criticism), Wan opted to telegraph the Haydn-like silent transition/modulation (one empty bar) by putting on the brakes, robbing the effect of its surprise (if all of the repeats had been taken, then the last hurrah at the, by then, expected “stop” of the music could most certainly have been backed into, handling the same point differently, somewhat like embellishing an aria on the Da Capo).
Taken as a whole, Schubert’s last string quartet did not fare as well. Having been weaned on the Quartetto Italiano’s recordings, it will be exceedingly difficult for anyone to raise that bar to further heavenly heights.
Skipping the exposition repeat of the opening Allegro molto moderato may have saved ~7 minutes’ recording time (compared with the Italianos’ 1966, remastered 1995 Philips CD), but the music’s architecture suffered a grave injustice—not the least of which was the exclusion of the first ending’s transition back to the primary puzzle of G major vs. G minor.
Ensemble was very good but fell short of razor sharp—particularly the Scherzo where the centre of the pulse flitted about, resulting in more unwanted tension than heady playfulness. When the four bows were as one at the beginning of each measure, perfection was in the air: more please. (To be sure, on re-hearing the same movement, even the Italianos—still, hitting more than they missed—could have done better.) The incredibly rich, if discreet, harmonic shifts (notably the half-step pulls and “double suspension” weight/resolutions) must await another day.
Nonetheless, the balance was outstanding (ideally captured by Martha de Francisco, Doyuen Ko and Jeremy Tusz), as witness the beautifully crafted Andante un poco moto with its incredibly varied dynamic/dramatic range.
With so much going for them, here’s to many more collaborations between the New Orford String Quartet and Bridge Records—there’s much more Beethoven ahead and listeners eagerly awaiting their views. JWR