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17.3.05

Mendelssohn String Quartet + 1

It has been some time since I have been to the marvelous auditorium of the National Academy of Sciences. Back then it was the lovely Debussy String Quartet with Igor Begelman playing the clarinet. I wrote much about their charming concert which included Brahms, Mozart, and then some, but later that night the Ysaÿe Quartet played Webern at the National Gallery of Art (see review on February 24, 2004), and somehow the Debussy review never made it onto Ionarts.

This time, however, I skipped the 21st Century Consort and made the Mendelssohn String Quartet's performance my sole musical enjoyment on Sunday. The 680-seat auditorium is a gem—literally almost, as it looks as though you are sitting on the inside of a giant diamond. That and a 1960s TV show space ship interior come to mind. It was designed to offer every seat in the house the same acoustic experience, and to do so without amplification... even for lone speakers on stage. (From the two times I've been there, sitting in completely different parts of the auditorium, it seems like that might have been more or less achieved.) On this gorgeous Sunday - the NAS bustling with people from several exhibitions and the 'High School Senior Science Competition Finalists' Fair', the auditorium probably hosted upward of 700 excited listeners.

The program promised Mozart's Quartet in D Minor, K421, a work that, for all its beauty, sounds conspicuously like early (and lesser) Beethoven to these ears. The opening may have been botched, and there remained a general intonation problem throughout the performance, but especially from the third movement on it made for a very amiable performance, overcoming the slow, stiff start. The Mendelssohn Quartet is no stranger to DC: cellist Marcy Rosen, violist David Panner, and violinists Miriam Fried and Nicholas Mann have often appeared at the various venues in town, most recently (as far as I know) at the Library of Congress (see Ionarts review from March 12, 2004).

Bartók's second quartet (op. 17) was next and delighted me as live Bartók always does. If not in the same league as the series of inspired and brillliant Bartók string quartets I have heard in Washington over the last two years (Zehetmair, Chilingirian, and Takács Quartets), their performance was still worth hearing for the beautifully phrased mellow lines of the first movement. With its moderately spunky Allegro molto capricioso and elongated, softly mourning Lento (beautiful, but probably only to the Bartók initiated), it is harder to pull off to the same riveting effect as quartets nos. 3, 4, and 5, especially. (The program notes call the second quartet the most accessible, a claim that makes sense to someone who already likes that kind of music, but also a claim impossible to believe after having seen the Takács Quartet in action on one of the later quartets.)

Mendelssohn's Quintet No. 2, op. 87, had Robert Mann—also no stranger to Washington, given the 51 years with 'his' Juilliard Quartet—support his colleagues with his viola (!) playing skills. Mendelssohn's chamber music, beyond the Octet, seems to get its due attention these days. Complete String Quartet cycles on disc are no longer a rarity, the Emerson Quartet just having added another to the four extant cycles... and two or three other ones in the making. (The list, so far, is still headed by the Talich [Calliope], Ysaÿe [Decca Trio], and the Leipzig [MDG] quartets.) The quintet may not be the masterpiece that a 16-year-old Mendelssohn created with his octet, nor is it as haunting as the op. 80 string quartet, written shortly after the death of his beloved sister, but it overflows with beauty nonetheless. The Andante scherzando is a perfect distillate of the styles of Beethoven and a slow movement of Haydn's. Execution was fair, and the crowd received it with warm applause.

The next (and last) concert at the NAS this season will be flutist Gary Schocker in works by Bach, Prokofiev, Debussy, and himself on Sunday, April 3rd, at 3 pm.

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