With the admission in his opening remarks by ever-affable Christopher Newton that George Bernard Shaw “probably never heard” Haydn’s miraculous “Kaiser” String Quartet, it seems that the long-running “Shaw and Music” conceit (Newton reads Shaw’s pithy comments on the music which follows immediately) has run its course and should be respectfully retired. (Perhaps it might be replaced by “The Shaw Festival’s Music”: programs of the vast repertoire used in the plays, performed in full. Newton’s recollections and keen ear would be most welcome in the same manner that his readings are appreciated.)
In earlier editions (cross-reference below), it was such fun to (re-)hear the playwright/critic’s take on the music. The audience could then decide for themselves whether the Irish writer was on their wavelength or not. Newton did his best to work the premise, but the C Major masterpiece was none the wiser for the thoughtful, historical background of the artist at fifteen.
Having suckled on the Quartetto Italiano’s magnificent 1976 recording of this chamber music at a tender age (and nearly hearing them live in Pittsburgh only to have that much-anticipated experience snuffed out when the tour had to be cancelled) the Gould String Quartet would have needed to produce a miraculous performance to delight the audience and your admiring if “notoriously demanding” (cross-reference below) scribe.
With the extra-musical whir of fans and the occasional horse-drawn carriage ambling past an open door, there were far too many distractions to let the Austrian composer’s genius transform the appreciative gathering into rapt admirers.
The “Allegro” began buoyantly (violinist Atis Bankas is a master at finding just the right tempo to suit the music and the acoustics); happily the repeats were taken, allowing the structure to completely reveal itself. The famous “Poco adagio” (Haydn’s setting of “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” provided his countrymen with a national anthem and a theme for this set of variations) moved along affably but lacked exceptional ensemble and uniform accents; violist Vera Alexeyev was heard to great advantage in the third variant.
A touch more lift would have moved the “Menuetto” into the realm of excellence; Bankas’ discreet portamenti added much to the success of the “Trio.” The rough-and-ready Finale featured engaging energy and afforded cellist Luke Pomorski the opportunity of demonstrating his considerable technical skills.
John McEwan’s second of sixteen quartets (likely being given its North American première) won’t find its way into the standard repertoire anytime soon but was an interesting curiosity nonetheless. The jaunty opening theme of the “Allegro marcato” was nicely balanced with a somewhat cheesy second subject. The largely episodic structure, at times slipping into melodrama in search of a film, moved easily from scene to scene but never had a sense of arrival and took a few tries to decide just how and where to end.
The low strings provided many of the “Andante quasi adagio’s” finest moments, infused with a melody that left no doubt as to the Scotsman’s heritage. The “Vivace” was great fun with its Little Sir Echo conversational style (violinist Vera Alexeyev’s contributions were especially crisp and clean) and its contrasting “Trio” (replete with longer lines and tremolo) kept the ear engaged.
McEwan’s attempt to emulate Dvorák (“Finale: Allegro vivace”) only succeeded in proving that although “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” there’s nothing like the real thing. JWR