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Daedalus Quartet Heads to the Barns

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Sibelius / Stravinsky / Ravel, Daedalus Quartet

(released on August 22, 2006)
Bridge Records 9202 | 66'02"
The Daedalus Quartet returned to the Washington area last night for a concert on Wolf Trap's Discovery Series. As noted in my preview of this concert, when the quartet won the top prize at the 2001 Banff Competition, the jury also awarded them the Székely Prize, for the best performance of a Beethoven quartet during the competition. So it should come as no surprise that the final piece on the program, Beethoven's String Quartet No. 10 (E-flat major, op. 74), was the best part of the evening. The group's taut rendition ranged from a pensive Poco Adagio introduction, with some violent outbursts, to the vibrant, pizzicato harp motif that runs throughout the first movement and gives the quartet its nickname ("Harp"). The incandescent first violin sound of Min-Young Kim in the second movement glowed over the smoldering embers of the lower instruments, beautifully balanced. The third-movement Presto had a rollicking, occasionally stormy character, showcasing the quartet's admirable control and tonal range. Beethoven had the third movement fade out rather than reach a grand conclusion, somewhat unsatisfactorily, leading seamlessly (attacca) into the concluding variations. Hopefully, a complete Beethoven cycle is somewhere in the Daedalus Quartet's plans.

Lawrence Dillon, composer (photo courtesy of
At the center of the program was the world premiere of Lawrence Dillon's fourth string quartet, The Infinite Sphere, from his Invisible Cities cycle of six quartets. Dillon claims that his aim in this cycle is to explore traditional forms as a way to disprove "that the Western Classical tradition is outdated and irrelevant." To adapt folk and rock idioms in the fourth quartet as he did, however, seems to belie that concern. If the Daedalus Quartet's debut CD proved anything, especially in their exciting performance of Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet, it was that the group enjoys the challenges of modern music and they took to the task of premiering the Dillon piece with aplomb and energy. Dillon's ideas for the piece, inspired by a paradoxical statement about the geometry of the universe from Pensées (for Pascal, a sure sign of God's hand in the universe's creation was that the mind is lost in the contemplation of its vastness), focused on melodic shapes and musical forms that circle back on themselves. Even the overall form, seven sections in two movements, is chiastic -- violist Jessica Thompson described the form as ABCDCBA, while Jeffrey Jones's program notes identified it as ABACABA.

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Robert Battey, Daedalus Quartet dazzles in new Dillon, offers standard standards (Washington Post, January 18)
The virtuosity of such formal concerns requires that the piece of music, while founded on complex structures, is still interesting and beautiful to hear even if one does not understand what underlies it, and this is where Dillon falters. Of the two forms used throughout, the round was most evident on the surface, especially in the outer movements, in which a Dorian melody -- a little Scarborough Fair, a little Noël nouvelet -- stands out clearly. The rondos were not as clear to the ear, at least not by comparison to the last movement of the Mozart quartet that preceded the Dillon piece. There was a lot to enjoy, not least the pulsating repetition of the rock bacchanale sections and the buzzing tremolos of the fervent fifth movement, but although played very well it did not add up to much. The opening piece on the program, Mozart's String Quartet No. 22 (B-flat major, K. 589), was not up to the standards of this group, certainly not in terms of the sixth string quintet heard at their 2006 concert. Not only was the performance unpolished in terms of ensemble and intonation, the interpretative approach was fairly plain and straightforward, which might go well with the piece's sunny character. Still, there was no reason to rush the third movement, marked only Moderato, so that all the sixteenth notes got a little cloudy, especially in the substantial trio.

The next concert in Wolf Trap's Discovery Series will feature the Aspen Ensemble, playing music by Beethoven, Martinů, and Brahms (January 29, 8 pm).

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