In By Strauss, Ira Gershwin included a lyric about "the free 'n' easy / waltz that is Vienneasy." Visitors to the free concert series at the Library of Congress this week are being treated to two Vienneasy string quartets, beginning Wednesday night with the Artis-Quartett Wien (two t's and beginning 'kv' when pronounced, pace Jens). This quartet was formed in 1980 by musicians who also teach music at the universities of Vienna and Graz. In addition to performing around the world, the Artis-Quartett Wien plays an annual series of concerts at the Wiener Musikverein. Their smooth, refined, understated sound was in marked contrast with many American string quartets, like the Emersons, who are not unwilling to be raucous. If their program had been more Viennese, this would have been a more satisfying concert.
The musicians opened with two movements from Mendelssohn's op. 81, the posthumous collection cobbled together by the composer's publisher, odds and ends for string quartet that Mendelssohn may not have wanted to see the light of day. Still, they are worth hearing, and the Artis-Quartett gave a restrained, lyrical performance of no. 4, the Fugue in E-Flat Major, a youthful work from 1827. No. 3, the Capriccio in E minor, concluded with a fast, agitated rendition of the Allegro fugato. All those roulades in the subject buzzed around like flies, in this work from the later Leipzig years, completed in 1843. The concluding work, Beethoven's E-flat major quartet, op. 127, had some lovely sounds, although in the fast movements the four players were not completely unified in pacing. In particular, when first violinist Peter Schuhmayer was exposed, as in the trio of the third movement, the sound was less than inspired.
Andrew Lindemann Malone, From Tania French, Shades of Happiness In a String Quartet (Washington Post, March 2)
French's vision of the string quartet as a pretty bauble, a New Age crystal, is an insult to the venerated history of the genre, since Beethoven the repository for the most important compositional ideas. The work has little to challenge the listener, a few Glassesque metric shifts, a wrong-footed dance with folksy inflections, a Mark O'Connor hoedown, and little to challenge the players, either. No one should be surprised, since the composer's Web site resides at the domain musicdreaming.com, and previous works have titles like Reflect the Joy, Four Illuminations, Symphony of Melting Glaciers, Harbors of Light, and Galactic Voyage. (Alright, I made up one of those titles, but you have to guess which one.) Call me a bitter snob, but I expect more from the Library of Congress.
The Aron Quartett will play on the Library of Congress series Friday evening (March 2, 8 pm), with a program that is thoroughly Vienneasy, including quartets by Haydn, Schoenberg, and Korngold. That is a worthy program.