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Chilingirian Quartet at the Library of Congress

I was once again in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress tonight, to see the latest in the 2003-2004 season of the annual series of free concerts. The Chilingirian String Quartet presented a program of three quartets by Mozart, Bartók, and Dvořák. This was my first time hearing this group perform, and I discovered that their reputation, particularly as interpreters of Bartók and Dvořák, is well merited. The quartet was formed by four graduates of London's Royal College of Music in 1971, and two of its founding members are still performing, Levon Chilingirian on first violin and Philip DeGroote on cello. Charles Sewart has been playing second violin since 1992, and violist Susie Mészáros is playing her first season with them this year. The Chilingirian Quartet is now in residence at the Royal College of Music, where Mr. Chilingirian is a professor. They have also partnered with the remarkable vocal ensemble Anonymous 4, for which collaboration John Tavener composed an octet for string quartet and four voices. (This piece, titled "The Bridegroom," was just performed by them in a concert called "Darkness into Light" on October 23 at the World Financial Center Winter Garden in New York City. There is also a CD of the program available.)

The concert began with Mozart's String Quartet in C Major, K. 465 ("Dissonance"), which was beautifully played but not the best part of the concert. (Mozart is not one of the quartet's areas of specialization, according to the biography included for them in the program.) This is the last quartet in the set of six "Haydn" quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, and it owes many of its characteristics to that composer's influence. The nickname "Dissonance" was attached to the quartet after Mozart's death, and it refers to the strange harmonies in the brief Adagio introduction to the first movement, the only such slow introductory movement among Mozart's final string quartets. The piece has troubled many listeners since it was composed: Mozart's wife Constanze related a story about one Prince Grassalkovich, who got angry because he thought his string players were making mistakes when they played the Dissonance quartet. When they assured him the notes they played were on the page, he tore up the score. The Chilingirian Quartet chose a very fast tempo for the first movement, which was perhaps just a hair too allegro for the extremely agile second theme. The movement came to a soft and charming conclusion, in spite of Mr. Chilingirian's mishap with his music: it fell from the stand as he turned a page, but he quickly recovered without missing too much. The variations of the rather slow rendition of the Andante movement were dark and lovely. The happy Menuetto of the third movement is contrasted with a Trio of an almost Sturm und Drang feel. There were occasional minor inaccuracies in the first violin spiccatos in this movement, but a soaring and pure E string sound that was quite beautiful. The strongest influence of Haydn, I think, is the humor of his Rondo movements, with their quirky starts and stops, which is lovingly imitated by Mozart in the final movement here. Again the Chilingirian chose a very fast tempo, which required the first violin especially to be extremely adroit.John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Library of Congress

The best performance of the concert was Bartók's String Quartet no. 5, a piece that was commissioned by and dedicated to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (the great music patron for whom Coolidge Auditorium is named, shown at right in a charcoal drawing by John Singer Sargent) and first performed in Coolidge Auditorium by the Kolisch Quartet in 1935. (If you want to learn more about Mrs. Coolidge and her incredible work supporting the cause of new music in the 20th century, you should read Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge: American Patron of Music, a book by my former professor at Catholic University, Cyrilla Barr.) Although it is usually considered to be less harshly dissonant than the third and fourth quartets, Bartók's fifth string quartet begins with a strident and marked opening that was played with great force this evening. Since this piece includes many examples of Bartók's fascination with the mirror form or chiasmus, those striking harmonies from the beginning of the first movement return toward the end of the last movement. What Bartók began with folk music in his first quartet (see my review of the Juilliard String Quartet's performance of that piece on October 24), he develops fully in this piece, with its Bulgarian and other folk rhythms and sounds. The many effects called for in the piece (muting, tremulos, percussive off-string bowing, glissandi, and even glissandi in pizzicato) were used by the Chilingirian to create marvelous sound worlds. I don't know their recording of all six Bartók quartets (made before the present second violin and viola were members), but on the basis of this performance, I would be willing to buy it. The famous moment near the end of the last movement, where the music breaks into a sort of Viennese serenade gone insane, is marked by the composer "Allegretto, con indifferenza" when a theme is restated absurdly and then given a satirical twist harmonically. This was performed tonight with the perfect mixture of humor and banality.

The concert concluded with Antonín Dvořák's String Quartet in G Major, op. 106. This performance was also excellent, especially the deep-throated folk song of the second movement and tragic folk lament that begins and returns throughout the fourth movement. This was the first time that I had ever heard this quartet performed, and the more I get to know Dvořák's music, the more I like it. His harmonic vocabulary and folk-derived melodic construction have had, I think, a significant influence on American film composers especially, something which I appreciated even more hearing this piece. It was a night of many discoveries, for which I again thank the Library of Congress.

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