Mendelssohn on the Mall celebrates the 200th anniversary of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth and is sponsored by the Library of Congress, National Academy of Sciences, and National Gallery of Art. Last weekend, the
Fine Arts Quartet (NB: with former violist)
latter venue NGA, at their regular free-of-charge Sunday evening time, hosted an exquisite concert (.PDF file) by the Fine Arts String Quartet in front of a full house.
Often described as having one foot in the Classical period and the other moving on into Romanticism, Mendelssohn wrote for string quartet in a way that leaned heavily toward the former, whereas his writing for piano often more adventurously encompasses the latter, especially in the fiery piano trios. The program opened with two single-movement works -- the Capriccio in E Minor, from 1843, and the Scherzo in A Minor, from 1827 -- each full of charm, while exuding a positive brightness uniquely found in the minor modes. The Fine Arts Quartet’s gentle use of vibrato and carefully synchronized bow control was well suited to the wet acoustic of the West Garden Court. Furthermore, their statuesque demeanor allowed the music to flow through the performers as vessels. The people listening most intently in the room last Sunday were indeed the performers, whose intonation, tempos (fast notes never seemed fast) and ensemble were on par with the about-to-retire Guarneri Quartet (who will make their final appearance in Washington on February 10 at the Terrace Theater).
As they moved through the quartets (E-flat major, from 1829, and D major, from 1838) in all of their sense of victory, grace, and poise, one began to wish for the Fine Arts Quartet to push the envelope of a melodic phrase, put the flex in flexible tempo, or even misplace a note -- after all this was not Haydn or Mozart! Finally, in the penultimate movement of the concert, the third movement of the D major quartet (Andante espressivo ma con moto), the musicians took the tempo indication of espressivo as a direct instruction to milk it, with delicious results. The encore was the finale from Haydn’s “Lark” quartet, likely programmed to reinforce the musicians’ inclination to frame Mendelssohn narrowly as a Classicist. We hope to see the Fine Arts Quartet in the Washington area more frequently.
Daniel Ginsberg, Mendelssohn Experimented, and Fine Arts Gets Results (Washington Post, January 27)
Next Sunday's free concert at the National Gallery of Art (February 1, 6:30 pm) will feature pianist Ulrich Urban, playing more music by Mendelssohn, as well as some by other composers.