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20.12.06

Ensō Quartet @ LOC

Ensō String Quartet -- Maureen Nelson and John Marcus, violins; Melissa Reardon, viola; Richard Belcher, cello -- photo by David Mehr
Ensō String Quartet (Maureen Nelson and John Marcus, violins; Melissa Reardon, viola; Richard Belcher, cello), photo by David Mehr
On Monday night, for its last free concert in the calendar year, the Library of Congress celebrated Gertrude Clarke Whittall's donation of several precious Stradivari instruments to their collection, on the day of the great Cremonese luthier's death in 1737. For whatever reason, perhaps the mini-Ice Age that made the trees of northern Italy yield wood that was extremely dense, the sound of a Strad is still prized. The last time that a young string quartet, the Jupiter Quartet, was at the Library of Congress to play a concert on the Strads, Jens observed that just because an instrument was built by Stradivari does not mean that it will be a match for a player. When the young players of the Ensō Quartet spoke about the instruments they were using, first violinist Maureen Nelson compared the "Betts" Strad to a thoroughbred. It could be "a little wild," and she had to decide when to give it its head or rein it in.

Nelson had originally chosen to play the darker "Ward" violin but switched instruments with second violinist John Marcus, in the interest of the ensemble's sound. That says something about the Ensō Quartet's approach, and what stood out about their playing was that their sense of the entire composition trumped any individual player's virtuosity. Not only did we hear far more of the inner lines, especially second violin and viola, in this performance than in many others -- we wanted to hear those lines. The group's finest playing of the evening came on the modern work, Alberto Ginastera's second string quartet, op. 26, commissioned by the Library of Congress (through the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation) and premiered in 1958 by the Juilliard Quartet. It should be no surprise that the Ensō Quartet played the Ginastera well, as the group won second prize at the triennial Banff Competition, and a special honor for best performance of a new work, albeit without two members in their present makeup. (This was in 2004, as it turns out, the same year that the Jupiter Quartet won first prize.)

Ensō Quartet:
available at Amazon
Pleyel Quartets




Ginastera Quartets:
available at Amazon
Lyric Quartet

This was my first encounter with the Ginastera quartets, and based on the Ensō Quartet's visceral rendition of no. 2, they should make a recording of all three of them. The first movement is marked Allegro rustico, but if it has anything to do with rustic folk, they are murderous peasants: a barbaro 6/8 with accents all over the place, on and off the beat, duple crossing triple, moments of manic shrieking. The second movement featured a lovely viola solo from Melissa Reardon, on the Library's "Cassavetti" Strad, and the third was a magical incantation, spider music so soft at points that it almost evaporated between the stage and my ears. After a folk improvisation, devil's violin scordatura sounds and all, in the fourth movement, the fifth movement pulsated back to the spirit of the quartet's opening. In a case in the auditorium's entry hall, Ginastera's holograph score of the second quartet fooled me: the composer's handwriting was so precise and clear that I thought it was a printed score. His letters to Harold Spivacke (then Chief of the Library's Music Division and dedicatee of the second quartet) are also neatly typed and signed by hand. If he was a perfectionist, he should have felt proud of the second quartet.

Other Reviews:

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Enso String Quartet (Washington Post, December 20)
-- "After a somewhat tentative first movement, the Enso pushed the tempo in the Mozart quartet's slow movement too much, making its repeated phrases sound perfunctory." [Well, we heard the same concert! -- Ed.]
The group's obvious relish of the Ginastera could not have contrasted more with the lackluster performance of one of Mozart's Haydn quartets, K. 421, that preceded it. It was so cautious and well behaved, although with beautiful sound and excellent balance, that it seemed like the dutiful work students do for a piece forced on them by a beloved teacher. The first movement felt overly frenetic, the second movement perfunctory. Happily, the concluding work, Dvořák's E-flat major quartet, op. 51, was far from a disappointment. Last performed at the Library of Congress by the Panocha Quartet two years ago, it relies heavily on Czech folk sources and is nicknamed the "Slavonic." The performance was finely tooled, especially the second movement, in which a melancholy Czech Dumka battles for supremacy with a chipper Viennese waltz, and the lyrical, fast fourth movement. After some coaxing, the Ensō Quartet offered Bagel on the Malecon, a brief multimetric tango by Ljova [Lev Zhurbin, b. 1978]. You can hear it on the entry page to the quartet's Web site. Thank you, once again, to Mrs. Whittall.

The next concert in the free series at the Library of Congress (January 24, 8 pm) features Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists with pipa player Wu Man, in a program of modern music by Tan Dun, Takemitsu, and Hayashi.

1 comment:

Lindemann said...

Perfunctory = le mot juste