The string quartet is the most homogeneous, versatile and resilient chamber ensemble in existence. Although requiring four players, it is, essentially, a 16-string instrument with a range from the cello’s lowest C to the harmonic stratosphere of the violin. Little wonder so many composers since Haydn have penned some of their greatest compositions for such a deceptively simple exercise in orchestration, melody and development.
For the performers it’s both a privilege to share some of the most sublime moments in Western music and a formidable challenge to peel away the notes, leaving thoughts and emotions bare.
In their appearance at the Sunday Afternoon Concerts, the members of the Cypress String Quartet—too earnest in performance; too flippant in the chatty introductions that added nothing to our understanding—frequently shone, were cajoled by the long-dead composers and, finally, out of their depth in Schubert’s magnificent “adieu.”
Eighteen hours earlier, the musicians of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra (cross-reference below) raised the bar for excellence in tone, technique, rhythm and pitch, all the while struggling valiantly with somewhat unfocussed leadership and the same arid acoustics of the Annenberg Theater. It’s a pity the two groups couldn’t have sat together and learned from each other, but “just-in-time” concert touring leaves little space for discourse or reflection.
All the more ironic that one of Haydn’s “Russian” quartets started the proceedings.
There’s an old teacher’s admonition “don’t start the next phrase until you’ve finished the one you’re on!” Throughout the opening “Vivace,” the music was presented in a breathless manner, seriously in need of miniscule but vital punctuation so that the ideas had a chance of being understood. The following “Largo,” showed off the fine legato and bow control of Cecily Ward, but her accompanists backed away into near-oblivion. More into-the-string weight and firmer left hands would have provided a much stronger platform, encouraging the solo line to soar with greater confidence.
The “Scherzo” sped rather than rollicked, its Trio the pick of the crop. More lilt and lift in the Finale (too many bows glued to the strings) would permit the lines to spill over the bars rather than be their hostage. Nonetheless, the solo contributions by Ethan Filner and Jennifer Kloetzel were first rate, if just a tad understated. For all his genius, Haydn has a subtle but tears-in-your-eyes sense of humour: it’s OK to get the giggles in the sudden stops, often followed by a foray into the “wrong” key. But I digress.
The first two movements of Ravel’s F Major Quartet came across technically sound, but generally tentative and disjointed. A few pitch problems added more to the unease. Greater attention to the rise and particularly the fall of the dynamic shadings in the accompanying lines would much improve the near-continuous ebb and flow.
From the opening theme of the viola then cello, the performance moved up to another plane as the “Très lent” unfolded. Here is writing that is so seamless that surely its ethereal texture comes from one instrument. Then the “Presto” took flight, Ravel’s brilliance pushing his able protagonists forward with passion and verve to the final measure.
Schubert’s resplendent “Death and the Maiden” needs a few more trips to the woodshed before another attempt in public. It was astonishing to hear so much sloppy rhythm and lack of surety. The angelic “ Andante’s” theme and accompaniment the worst offenders: the two eighths were seldom of equal value, producing a casual result that never approached the overarching sense of pathos. Too often, the “Presto” flew apart at the seams and was exciting for all the wrong reasons.
I offer these musings in the hope that the enormous raw talent that dwells within these four performers will be further shaped and honed, ready to share the insights and feelings that permeate the string quartet repertoire. JWR