With much anticipation did I await the concert at the Library of Congress on Friday, March 5. The Mendelssohn String Quartet was billed with a program of Joseph Haydn's "Emperor" quartet (from which the German national anthem is taken), Seattle-born 66-year-old composer William Bolcom, and, of course, a quartet of their namesake composer. The Mendelssohn String Quartet, formerly the quartet in residence at Harvard and now at the North Carolina School of Arts, have a strong commitment to contemporary music and are highly regarded in the United States. Second violinist Nicholas Mann is the son of Robert Mann, the long-time first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet, who has an enthusiastic following in Washington from his many years at the Library of Congress.
First violinist Miriam Fried, a 1999 addition to the quartet, champions a chiffon cape that is an Art Nouveau dream in pink and black. And who is that behind the cello? It is founding member Marcy Rosen, who has just recently appeared at the Library with the Juilliard Quartet in their final performance of the Beethoven string quartet cycle, giving those four gentlemen the necessary support for the Schubert string quintet (see my review for Ionarts). She returns and so does her "bat"—the oddly colorful cape that so inspired my fantasy the last time. Daniel Panne is the newest member of the group and is not even mentioned yet on the quartet's Web site. He looks as though he had traded a CEO's briefcase for his viola just seconds before the performance. Nicholas Mann, meanwhile, bears (the more I think about it, the more certain I am) an uncanny resemblance to Ionarts' very own Charles Downey. He is engaged but oddly stiff and makes fairly unflattering grimaces while the women go about their music business adamantly and seriously.
The first piece in which that was to be observed turned out to be Haydn's earlier work, the String Quartet in F Minor, op. 20, no. 5—the fifth of the six "Sun" Quartets. It is an example of the true birth of the genre: these quartets are often referred to as the beginning of the sonata style by musicologists like Donald Tovey and Charles Rosen. Tovey is quoted in the program notes (by Tomás C. Hernández) describing the set of "Sun" Quartets as a "sunrise over the domain of sonata style as well as quartets in particular." Discuss.
The quartet starts as a gentle affair executed with impeccable taste. The opening movements (Moderato and Menuetto) were, in my favorite phrase, "perfectly delightful" and never overbearing. Devoid of any pretense and just engaging enough. Indeed, it fit the relatively early Haydn (composed in his mid-thirties) like a glove. Neither Romantic, which they should not be, nor boring, which it can more easily turn into than one would think. With the Adagio, Haydn shows over and over again his absolute mastery of that form, no matter in which genre. From the man who brought us seven adagios on a row in Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (The seven last words of our savior on the cross), this is simply a beautiful and beautifully simple warmth-filled movement that should win every listener over. Haydn was lucky to have it performed as the Mendelssohn String Quartet did. The fugal last movement perfectly rounded up the performance. It was lighthearted, quicksilvery almost, quaint certainly. A little energy was lacking, and it was the string quartet's version of the "Dresden china" approach to the music. Polite but not too cool. It may well have been the least favorite piece to play for the four musicians that night, but it was kept together so splendidly that I found it entertaining throughout. Had the day been less nice, had I been less energetic myself, I would possibly have found it less exciting.
Then followed the part I was most excited about, the Washington premiere of William Bolcom's 2002 String Quartet No.11. Viola and first violin excursions that continually increase in length were interrupted by the second violin and cello pizzicatos. Out of the first motive sprawled ever-longer parts, like sluggish cream that wound curdling spirals through tea (Joyce's words, not mine). A quicker pace entered and left, leading back to the harmonically tame theme and derivations thereof. What came to my mind immediately was, "Haydn for the 21st Century"! It does not have the energy of Shostakovich or Bartók (Beethoven's counterparts), but a lightness that is very enjoyable and reasonably accessible. Allegro con fuoco, the second movement, is understandably more driven and continues to be a cleansing of the musical palate. Notturno is evocative and very, very nice, so far as the listener can find the modernist harmonies "very, very nice" at all. Michael Tippett's string quartets are far more challenging. The concert at the Freer Gallery the day before also comes to mind, with its Whistler "Nocturnes" exhibited above and Chopin Nocturnes played downstairs.
Long but very separate notes that travel up and down the scales are the skeleton of this movement and every instrument gets its take. Sometimes accented with long, soft trills on the first violin or over equally long held vibrato notes on the cello or viola. There is a delicacy the Mendelssohn Quartet allow the music to bring out that continues ever further to the softest notes, the tiniest pizzicatos, all the way to where my pen on paper was louder than the music. Eerie sounds, almost sci-fi-like, are added to the mix just a bit before it fizzles out. Perhaps I was the only one to think so, but this was very, very enticing. Cute in the best way. The Presto scherzando speeds things up, gives familiar figures some "oompf," and bubbles along rapidly. Aroused and angry hornets seem to swarm from the four players at one point, the metallic sci-fi sound makes another short cameo, and a grabbing and fairly melodic burst brings it to its well-deserved end and well-deserved (if perhaps a bit modest) applause.
Excited enough, the Mendelssohn after the Intermission sounds very promising. Despite some neglect, his string quartets are very fine, op. 44, no.3 in E-flat major not the least. But when it came to tending his posthumous reputation, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy went about things in completely the wrong way. If one lives at a time when a Mozart or Beethoven has long since established definite standards with regard to how a real artist behaves, lives, looks, and finally dies, then it is no good being totally at odds with this Romantic ideal of an artist, at any rate if one wishes to secure a place for oneself among composers who are not only first class but also profound. The above-mentioned ideal demands quite unequivocally of the true artist that he is wild, eccentric, uncouth, poor, ill, neglected, and creative. Genius can only blossom in damp attics, and an early death is definitively an advantage. Only with regard to the latter respect was Mendelssohn in the running, since he died at the age of 38. In all other respects he failed miserably and indeed had to pay the price of having an almost indestructible reputation for being smooth and superficial. He was wealthy, good-looking, of an amiable disposition, and had an unprecedented capacity for hard work. He appears to have been liked by everybody, to have been an excellent husband and father, and to have been little interested in originality for its own sake. Next! (This description of Mendelssohn has in large part been shamelessly plagiarized from Ulrik Spang-Hanssen's wickedly funny liner notes for his recording of Mendelssohn’s complete organ works, on Classico, CLASSCD 193-95.)
This string quartet defies such notions instantly. Perfect music best enjoyed leaning back, with a big smile on one's face. Often gentle, never bland. Almost conspicuously musical and without gimmicks. "The Power of Melody" would be the Hollywood subtitle of "String Quartet op. 44 no. 3: The Movie." A long string quartet, with a first movement lasting well over ten minutes, it sounds unhurried and splendidly flowing. Tonight it seemed much shorter than usual. The music is an unqualified success and makes the four instruments seem like a far larger band. The movements just flew by, and by the time the wonderful Adagio non troppo came about, the audience ate out of the Mendelssohn Quartet’s palm. If it is well played, which is difficult, it is much more satisfying than most Schubert or Schumann. The long, loving, trailing end delivered us into the last movement, Molto allegro con fuoco. Heads started bobbing as its vivacious chasing runs sprinted up the scales. It is one of the very few string quartets where I would have liked a da capo al fine. One more time. Alas, it was the end to a stupendous night with great music superbly played. That the audience could not muster a third curtain call and perhaps an encore brings back my unkind view of the Washington audience at large, but nothing could take away from what had been offered already. Hopefully on more time, some other time.