Are the free concert series at the National Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, and the Library of Congress enough for one city? No, when it comes to free concerts, there can never be too many, and so the National Academy of Sciences also presents a half-dozen free concerts each season. On Sunday afternoon, a large audience gathered in the geodesic dome-like auditorium at NAS to hear the triumphant return of the the Ensō Quartet to Washington. Longtime readers will surely recall their last appearance in the area, at the Library of Congress in December 2006, for the Stradivari anniversary concert. After the young quartet gave a memorable performance of a work commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Alberto Ginastera's second string quartet, I advised in print that "they should make a recording of all three of them." Not that it has anything to do with my hopes, but the group has done just that, in a forthcoming disc for Naxos, to follow their Pleyel set.
Ensō String Quartet (Maureen Nelson and John Marcus, violins; Melissa Reardon, viola; Richard Belcher, cello), photo by David Mehr
When the Ensō Quartet took second prize (after the extraordinary Jupiter Quartet) at the 2004 Banff Competition (but with two different members from present personnel, still listed in their Naxos biography), they received a special prize recognizing their performance of a modern work. True to form, another Ginastera quartet, no. 3, was also the high point of this program. The composer grouped it with his string quartets, but it is a sort of song cycle, featuring a soprano voice in four of its five movements. The texts, by prominent Spanish poets, are concentrated on the theme of music and sound, beginning with Juan Ramon Jimenez's La Música. Out of the opening unison that blossoms into clusters and then is vaporized into stratospheric harmonics, the soprano voice of music sometimes speaks and at other times sings only parts of each line, as if she were partially submerged.
Pleyel Quartets 1
Pleyel Quartets 2
One could hardly ask for a more committed performer to partner with the Ensō Quartet than Washington soprano Rosa Lamoreaux. She met the harrowing demands of the score with courageous tonal beauty, fragmenting only occasionally on long high notes. The quartet played with impressive unity, obliterating Lamoreaux's voice with destructive shrieks and clusters, insect noises, and crazy contrapuntal barking (at the end of the fourth movement). The work comes full circle, returning to the opening motif at the start of the fifth movement, and this rendition left an impression similar to how the musicians described the work, all jagged edges and clashing colors of an expressionistic painting.
Ensō Quartet recording Ginastera, String Quartet No. 3,
with soprano Lucy Shelton
It was Mozart that impressed least in the Ensō Quartet's last concert, and here it was Haydn's op. 20, no. 1, that had a rocky start, with the first violin sound on the shallow side. The sense of the quartet rushing through the work prevailed, with the short and sweet Menuet just a little too sprightly and an appropriately fast and short final movement. The high point of the Haydn was the homophonic slow movement (Affettuoso e sostenuto), set at the perfect calm tempo, with each harmony beautifully tuned and with a near total absence of vibrato.
Surprisingly, the quartet reprised the same Dvořák E-flat major quartet, op. 51, that concluded their Library of Congress appearance. Once again, it was a fine performance, with an earnest and poignant first movement and a Dumka infused with folksy rubato. Again, it was the slow movement that pleased most, a tense and somber Romanze. Happily, the Ensō Quartet returned to contemporary music for its substantial encore, the third movement ("North Is a Notion") of Pierre Jalbert's Icefield Sonnets. Opening with dissonant chords and dominated by crescendo growls from the viola and cello, this movement climaxed with fast tremolos and a thrilling ultra-rhythmic conclusion. Now we can hope for a Jalbert recording by the Ensō Quartet from Naxos.
Robert Battey, Enso String Quartet (Washington Post, January 29)
The next concert at the National Academy of Sciences features violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, harpist Anna Reinersman, and pianist Craig Ketter (February 10, 3 pm). It is free, and no reservation is required.
Related: The Ensō Quartet played all of Icefield Sonnets and one of the Pleyel quartets on the January 26 program I am very sorry to have (unavoidably) missed, on the Candlelight Concert Society series in Columbia, Md.