The eleventh season of The Gallery Players of Niagara lifted off in fine fashion with the inaugural appearance of the Eybler Quartet. Named after a contemporary of Mozart and the artistic equivalent of Salieri, the musicians perform on period instruments notable for gut rather than steel strings.
The difference in sound goes far beyond the analog vs. digital revolution (warmth, depth and “scratches” replaced by 1/0 registration whose products will “last forever” and “never skip!”). Gut strings have an inherent penchant for slipping their peg leashes, requiring the patience of Job by practitioner and audience alike. Yet there is no doubt that when all of the elements align (including a room temperature that wasn’t like Rodman Hall’s sauna setting), the result is more present and a touch more homogeneous than the modern solution.
The question, however, remains: What would the composers have preferred? Did they imagine their works in the colours and capabilities of the instruments at their disposal, or did they “hear” the future? Would they advocate for variable intonation and extra depth, or near-perfect pitch and gritty sheen? We must check on the other side!
The program began with Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet, which might have puzzled first-time listeners given that it was listed second in the menu. But I chuckled right along as I overheard a copy error discovered with glee in the first print-edition of JWR Quarterly Report by the eagle-eyed couple behind.
The “Allegro” was amiable, full of twists and turns and many bursts of technique. On many occasions where the music rests or pauses, the ensemble would benefit from breathing a hair longer, so as to let the room’s reverberation catch up with the phrase. The affable playfulness of the “Scherzo” delighted, but Aisslinn Nosky’s portamenti in the Trio were too gooey by half. Patrick Jordan and Margaret Gay combined beautifully to open the “Largo,” their tone, nuance and phrase an early highlight. The Finale leapt off the page, burning up triplets as it foreshadowed Mendelssohn’s sunny “Italian” Symphony between the lines. Poker-faced all, the last pianissimo giggle drew happy guffaws and grateful applause from the assembly.
The C Minor Eybler Quartet (Op. 1 No. 2) began with a serious and sturdy delivery, relaxing nicely into the charming second subject. Like Papa which preceded, the “Allegro” had moments of well-delivered bravura, but the development couldn’t escape its rudimentary construction. The muted “Adagio non molto,” with more than a passing reference to Mozart’s Les Petits Riens, needed a tad more lift to the upbeats and weight on the downbeats to fully plumb its subtle depth. By far the finest movement was the Schubertian “Scherzo,” filled with vibrant texture and tone as well as a marvellous chat between Julia Wedman’s pointed question and Gay’s saucy answer. “Dirty work at the cross bows” could have been the title for the zesty, if melodramatic, Finale. Here, the development had more to say with copious amount of syncopation, sudden stops and counterpoint. The players conveyed the spirit with such aplomb that future Eybler offerings will be eagerly awaited.
“A lot of passion and storminess,” said Wedman in her opening remarks about the sixteen-year-old genius’ E-flat Major Quartet. That set the table for the finest playing of the day. Following a glowing and committed “Adagio,” the ensuing “Allegro” produced exemplary ensemble and phrasing. Wedman led with authority and pushed the envelope into the heady climaxes with verve. The “Canzonetta,” with its engaging melody and oh-so-discreet pizzicato underpinning, ought to be bottled and sold to anyone feeling discomfort or suffering from depression.
The “Andante espressivo” began promisingly, but a tad more viola would have enhanced the balance. Wedman’s heroic leaps were courageous, but, as noted earlier, a microsecond more—sensing the emotional reaction in the hall—before moving ahead will bring future performances into the realm of exceptional. Vaulting attacca into the last frame caused a few to jump in alarm, but once lit, the movement simmered and sizzled from stem to stern. Much could be learned about Mendelssohn’s emerging self-confidence as he chose to end the proceedings with a whisper rather than a standing-O bang. Tellingly, the quartet responded in kind. JWR