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Ysaÿe Something You Don't See!

Continuing their exciting Sunday concert series, the National Gallery of Art presented its 2485th installment (see the program and notes by Elmer Booze, in .pdf format) in what turns out to be an astounding 62nd season of the William Nelson Cromwell and F. Lammot Belin Concert Series. On February 15, it was the Ysaÿe String Quartet that was going to delight the audience in the packed West Garden Court of the National Gallery’s West Building. Among the attendees was His Excellency, Jean-David Levitte, Ambassador of France, visibly excited about this young French quartet’s performance.

The Ysaÿe String Quartet, named after the turn-of-the-century French composer and violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, was founded in 1984 and had been catapulted onto the international scene with their 1989 debut at the Salzburg Festival. It is rare to get the visceral energy of young players coupled with over 15 years of international experience in music making of the highest order. In these four musicians—Guillaume Sutre, Luc-Marie Aguera, Miguel da Silva, and François Salque—the listener does get it. Their complete Mendelssohn String Quartets and the Mozart "Haydn" Quartets have been much-enjoyed examples of their art in my CD collection. Both, now available in the Universal Classics Trios series, are bargains not to be missed. As is usually the case with string quartets, seeing them live adds another dimension to the experience.

The last string quartet I heard at the National Gallery was the Zehetmair Quartet (on January 26, 2003) performing Schumann, Bartók, and Cage ("stupendous does not even come close to conveying that night") leaving me with high expectations. This much already: there was no reason for disappointment! Having come a bit later than usual to the National Gallery I was lucky to find a seat inside the West Garden Court, luckier even to find one with at least some sight of the musicians. Peering from behind one of the large pillars, I was able to make out the two violins. Mr. Sutre on first was in plain sight, and Mr. Aguera had a twig from one of the trees in front of the stage add contrast to his image. Messrs. Salque and Da Silva (on viola and cello, respectively) were well hidden behind the trunk and petioles of this oversized shrub.

That wasn't a distraction from Haydn's String Quartet op. 54 no. 2 in D Major, Of course, the acoustics were not stellar behind the pillar, but the sonorous tone from the quartet reached me there, too, with delight. The opening Vivace is an all-around pleasant and (not surprising, really) lively thing. It sets the enjoyable and elated mood into which the Adagio enters with its haunting melody. A masterpiece of an adagio, it has a somber, moving and melancholic quality. (This is one of Haydn’s specialties: one need think only of the adagio-only composition Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze [The seven last words of our savior on the cross].) It takes no effort to let yourself be swept away by it. The cello provides for much of the serene basic melody, while the violins support it first unisono, only to soar above it later, never destroying the earthy and bittersweet quality of it.

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