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26.2.08

Alban Berg Quartet, Adieu

We had to miss the Washington stop of the Alban Berg Quartet's farewell tour, at the Library of Congress on Friday night. It was more than a consolation to be able to hear the Takács Quartet at the Corcoran instead that night, as well as to know that on Sunday evening the Alban Berg Quartet would be appearing at Shriver Hall in Baltimore (after an absence of almost 30 years). While this solution did mean not having to choose between the two quartets, the programs offered by the Alban Berg Quartet in the two venues were not identical: there was Haydn and Berg in both places, but different pieces, and the group played Beethoven at the LOC and Schubert at Shriver Hall.

The quartet lost its founding violist, Thomas Kakuska, to cancer in 2005. Kakuska had hoped that the quartet would continue after his death, even nominating a student, Isabel Charisius, to succeed him. Regrettably, the loss has ultimately led to the unraveling of the group, which cellist Valentin Erben has described as "a big rupture in our hearts." This is a loss for listeners who loved the subtlety, warmth, and lyricism of their style of playing, but their legacy will be preserved in an extraordinary range of excellent recordings. Still, fans of chamber music were obliged to turn out in force to hear their final series of concerts, and if attending both of them in Washington and Baltimore had been possible, I would have done it.

The solemn Introduzione to Haydn's op. 51, Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze, was a model of true intonation and clarity of ensemble attack from the first note, with no period of settling into the room's acoustic. Haydn composed the score for a Good Friday service in the church of Santa Cueva in Cádiz, Spain, later adapting the orchestral version for string quartet, adding the introductory movement heard here and a conclusion. Here it introduced not the suffering and death of Jesus but, incongruously, Alban Berg's gorgeous Lyrische Suite, which we have heard from the Quatuor Diotima in 2006 and a Musicians from Marlboro concert in 2005. Instead of Christ's seven last words, it was Berg's six "latent opera" scenes on his adulterous affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. The quartet gave a masterful performance of their namesake's work, ranging from the multiparty chattering of the first movement to the subtle quotation from Tristan und Isolde in the last movement.

Other Articles:

Tim Smith, Austria's Alban Berg Quartet bids a fond farewell (Baltimore Sun, February 26)

Anne Midgette, Alban Berg Quartet's Passionate and Bittersweet Farewell (Washington Post, February 25)

Andrew Clements, Alban Berg Quartet (The Guardian, February 16)

Hugo Shirley, Alban Berg Quartet (Musical Criticism, February 15)

Emma Pomfret, The stormy, intimate life of the string quartet (The Times, February 8)
The Berg highlighted the distinguishing quality of the quartet's Viennese sound, an all-around sweetness of tone eschewing the stridency one sometimes hears, dramatically, from American quartets. The hushed intimacy of the second movement, with the singing first violin of Günter Pichler and the tender duet of second violin and viola, gave way to the eerie sul ponticello effects and insectoid pizzicati of the third movement, again more atmospheric than drawing attention to themselves. Full dynamics were not really sustained until the feverish fourth movement and jabbing, angular sounds of the furious fifth movement.

The Shriver audience got the better end of the deal in terms of Berg, hearing the suite instead of the op. 3 string quartet. While the LOC patrons heard Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang quartet, it was another twilight piece, Schubert's final string quartet (D major, D. 887), that concluded the Shriver concert. Clearly, thoughts of illness and death hang heavily over the group's final concerts. The anguish of the first movement's opposition of major and minor chords (used so memorably by Woody Allen in his movie Crimes and Misdemeanors) was played as if under the surface, with the first theme hushed over a neurotically suppresed tremolo.

The second movement's cello solo playing by Valentin Erben was suave and introspective, perhaps evoking the sleeping Schubert awakened by terrors of his impending death. The Schubert, most of all, revealed some of the cracks in the technical polish of the veteran quartet, with some intonation issues, especially in the first violin, and less than flawless accuracy of execution. While fatigue must also be playing a part in the decision to retire, the Alban Berg Quartet's final performance in Baltimore, all in all, ends their career at an impressive height of accomplishment.

The next concert at Shriver Hall promises to be one of the best of the season, a recital by pioneering French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard (March 16, 5:30 pm). The program is announced as selections from Bach's Art of Fugue (Contrapunctus I-XI), Schoenberg's Five Piano Pieces, op. 23, and Beethoven's op. 110 sonata. We would not miss it for the world.

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