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Stars and Strings

For dedicated lovers of chamber music, Washington, D.C., is a veritable Mecca. Many cities have impressive events of chamber music that fly slightly below the mainstream cultural radar, but I dare say that few if any have as many—and as many free—such events as does Washington, D.C. At the National Gallery of Art, the Library of Congress, various Smithsonian institutions (notably the Freer Gallery), the National Academy of Sciences, the Phillips Collection, and the Corcoran Gallery, the worlds who's who of string quartets polish door knobs. To name but a few of the worthy contributions to what is otherwise not the most culturally savvy town in the country, enthusiasts were able to enjoy the Zehetmayer, Juilliard, Talich, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Bartók, Kodály, Ysaÿe, Brodsky, Chilingirian, and Takács Quartets. On April 2, it was the Leipzig String Quartet that provided small-scale, high-strung excellence to the Coolidge Auditorium in the Library of Congress.

The program featured Mendelssohn (String Quartet in F minor, op. 80), Charles Ives (String Quartet no. 1, "From the Salvation Army") for the "never play last piece," and the perennial crowd-pleaser, one of the most beautiful pieces of chamber music in the repertoire, the Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op. 115. The quartet took to the Mendelssohn and elicited a rather strange, raspy, buzzing sound—surprisingly hollow, eerie almost—especially from the cello. The four Germans were finely animated and ever so gently amusing to look at, with violist Ivo Bauer being the exception to the former and cause for the latter. Stiff as this petite man played on his instrument, he looked as though he had swallowed a broomstick. In Matthias Moosdorf's hands, the cello shrunk considerably in size, overshadowed by a huge frame as his is.

Accounting for the difference in acoustics from the different venue and my different position relative to the players, I still wanted to think that I could detect a difference of tone and character in all instruments from the fine versions the Bartók Quartet spoiled our ears with on March 21 at the National Gallery of Art (see the Ionarts review on March 24). The Mendelssohn itself was amiably played, animated, and technically flawless. The wonderfully driving second movement (Allegro assai) that is an absolute highlight of string quartet writing, too, was superb—with lower marks only for the oddly flat, perhaps shallow sound that I could well have imagined a bit richer and more buttery, without taking away from the necessary agility in this four-movement lament composed by Mendelssohn in response to the death of his beloved sister. (The complete Mendelssohn String Quartets with the admirable Ysaÿe String Quartet in the budget-priced Universal/Decca Trio series is my highly serviceable copy that brings me much joy, when the memories of this concert wear thin, though the Leipzig String Quartet has also recorded his entire work.) In the Adagio, the tone of the instruments, including the cello, seemed to matter less, if at all. Either the instruments warmed up, or more likely, my ears did, or perhaps the musicians themselves.

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