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13.12.12

Fine Arts Quartet @ KC

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E. Zimbalist, String Quartet (inter alia), Fine Arts Quartet
(2012)

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Haydn, String Quartets, op. 77, Quatuor Mosaïques
(2001)

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Schubert, String Quartet 14 ("Death and the Maiden"), Quatuor Mosaïques
(2010)
The Fine Arts Quartet, founded in 1946, is in a transitional phase at the moment. The group's pedigree is perhaps greater than its current cachet, with the two veteran violinists learning how to meld with newer members on the lower strings. As heard recently here in Washington -- in 2009 at the National Academy of Sciences and on Tuesday night, on the Fortas Chamber Music series in Kennedy Center Terrace Theater -- the group has more melding to do.

The opening work, Haydn's G major quartet (op. 77/1), was not the sort of Haydn to write home about, with a heavy vibrato and hefty Romantic buzz in the tone. The heart of this quartet, completed in 1799 and dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz, is an extended slow movement, a little too on the soporific side in this performance. This was old-school Haydn, which can have its own pleasures, but not with so many intonation issues, especially concentrated in the first violin. Cellist Robert Cohen, who joined the group just this year, has an odd, wooden tone that stuck out of the ensemble, while violist Nicolò Eugelmi, who joined in 2009, had a tone so retiring that one heard relatively little of what he played all night long.

The quartet, in a recent incarnation (but before the current cellist), has just released a disc that pairs two relatively unknown string quartets composed by violinists in the early 20th century. In fact Efrem Zimbalist's string quartet, which they played in this concert, is indeed in much the same vein as Fritz Kreisler's A minor quartet, reviewed last spring, and the ill-fated single string quartet penned by Glenn Gould. Both Zimbalist and Kreisler had just enough melodic invention, harmonic vocabulary, and knowledge of the string family to write decent pieces for string quartet -- enough to dabble, certainly, but far from enough to hold focused attention for very long. Zimbalist's quartet has some folk music charm in the first movement, along with too many derivative sounds, a second movement that sounds like cut-rate Shostakovich, and a cheesy-schlock third movement that drags on interminably. The fourth movement is anchored on tiresome runs of fast notes for Zimbalist in the first violin part.

It is hardly Zimbalist's fault that his string quartet was set up against one of the paragons of the repertoire, Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 (D. 810, D minor), which provided a damning contrast. The work's nickname, "Death and the Maiden," comes from Schubert's concise song of the same name, set to a poem by Matthias Claudius, which is partially quoted in the second movement and subjected to a set of variations. The song fits onto a single printed page, but the music in both song and quartet versions has many resonances beyond that page, some of which is unraveled by Lawrence Kramer in his book Franz Schubert: Sexuality, Subjectivity, Song. Kramer describes the song as based on "a contrast between the maiden's pleas and Death's promises." It is a male-female dialogue that is generally sung by a male voice, the final (optional) low D of Death's concluding line being mostly outside of the range of women's voices (mostly). If a woman sings it, the part of the dying woman is "authentic" while the voice of comforting death is the part that is "feigned," and if a man sings it, the voice of the dying woman is, in that sense, a man's feigned voice, making the connection between the dying woman and Schubert himself an interesting possibility.


Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Fine Arts Quartet performs at Fortas Chamber Music series at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, December 13)
If the song is about that contrast of voices, Kramer sees the quartet as "based on a raging conflict between them," although the second movement's quotation of the song leaves out the woman's half of the conversation, focusing entirely on the music associated with the voice of death. Schubert completed the song many years earlier, when he was only twenty, but the quartet comes from the period of his final illness. Kramer describes the quartet's three movements other than the song variations as "pervaded by a restless, mournful, hammering momentum that corresponds to an exacerbated form of the maiden's pleas." In particular, the outer movements and especially the moto perpetuo finale "affirm mortal terror as a persistent, overwhelming reality." The work transcends even an average performance, which is what the Fine Arts Quartet gave it, with a somewhat labored first movement, more intonation issues in the second movement, and moments of sloppiness in the last two movements.

The next concert in the Fortas Chamber Music series will feature pianist Misha Dichter and the Harlem Quartet (February 6, 7:30 pm), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

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