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20.11.05

Who is Garth Newel?

To be honest, Arthur Foote and Joaquin Turina quartets were what drew me to the Corcoran Gallery – not the Garth Newel Piano Quartet which, consisting of Teresa Ling (1st violin), Evelyn Gran (2nd violin), Tobias Werner (cello), and Victor Santiago Asuncion (piano), did the performing. In addition to two works I had never heard live before, they offered Schumann’s E-flat major piano quintet, op. 47 – rounding off an exciting program with a beloved classic. If you wonder – like I did – where or who this “Garth Newel” was… he turns out to be neither a (former) quartet member or obscure composer but instead a Welsh phrase for “new hearth.” The Quartet takes the name from the Garth Newel Music Center, a chamber music venue and retreat in western Virginia.

The Foote, with an 1890 composition date, is a conservatively Romantic work from this Massachusetts composer, who was bound to the German tradition of Schumann and Beethoven. A buoyant first movement (Allegro comodo) and a forceful finale (Allegro ma non troppo) surround the charming third movement, an Adagio, ma con moto. (From the tempo indications one may guess that he might have been the Boston head of the Temperance Society. If he wasn’t that, at least we were told by Teresa Lang, Foote was the choir director and organist of a Unitarian congregation in Massachusetts.) Perhaps a little long-winded, the quartet was a worthy listen, by all means.

Shimmers of a Spain long gone come through even in the first notes of Joaquin Turina’s Piano Quartet, op. 67, composed 40 years after the Foote. Although a Romantic work as well, a very different Romanticism is at work here. The language is more chromatic, the phrases more stressed, the local flavor (it regularly screams ‘Alhambra’) more discernable. It has wild moments, some of them “Spanish” like a cartoon might be – others less blatantly so. It is closer to the French than German musical tradition and has plenty of novel and arresting music between the sometimes cheap effects especially prominent in the second movement Vivo. For complexity and depth the Turina gets high marks, but I would have much preferred a good deal more subtlety in dealing with the Spanish elements. The performance of the Garth Newel Piano Quartet was adequate and more. The sound of the instruments a little flat (not with regard to pitch) and a wonderful energy that communicated the joy of presenting these little played works was felt.

The short slow introduction of the Schumann quartet from 1842 (Sostenuto assai before it turns to Allegro ma non troppo) fell apart, but once speed was added, things got well under way. The Steinway B sounded a little muddy and dull and never quite meshed with the other three players, whose instruments didn’t particularly charm, either. It was not something I’d like to fault Mr. Asuncion or his colleagues for – but rather point out that it is a shame that the Corcoran no longer has its famed collection of instruments which, apart from the Paganini Quartet Strads (now with the Nippon Music Foundation), included a Steinway (D) that was considered to have been among the very finest of its kind in Washington.

The Schumann Scherzo, meanwhile, was molto vivace indeed – although as monochromatic as the rest of the quartet and indeed the entire concert. Novelty and special effects masked most of that in the Foote and Turina, but Schumann more brutally points to even the smallest flaws in performance. Tobias Werner elicited some very satisfactory moments out of his cello in the Andante cantabile; the movement as such started to sound a bit labored, anyway. It is likely that, given the extraordinary high quality of the Corcoran’s Musical Evening Series, the bar was higher for the four performers than it would have been at another venue. It also almost feels ungrateful to be presented with a stimulating program and then be finicky about the performance not being close to some platonic ideal. Alas, that is the reality of musical performances and a set of spoiled ears on my head. “Just enjoyable,” however, is not a damning verdict.