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Arcanto Quartet Enchanting

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Ravel / Debussy / Dutilleux

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Bartók, String Quartets 5/6

Online scores:
Mozart, String Quartet in d, K. 421
Ravel, String Quartet in F Major
As previewed last week, the Arcanto Quartet played a magnificent concert last night at the Library of Congress, to a well-filled auditorium. The group's sound was honeyed, lustrous, refined, with the players happily never feeling they had to force in the intimate space of the library's Coolidge Auditorium. Fortes were never electrified by overexertion, and the degree of differentiation among soft dynamics was impressive. As noted of their recent recording, there is an evenness in the virtuosity of the players, four equals thinking as one, creating a unified sense of ensemble playing and collaboration, as well as scrupulous intonation and phrasing.

The heart of the program was a glowing, vibrant rendition of Ravel's gorgeous F major quartet, featuring some of the best viola playing, from Tabea Zimmermann, heard at the Library of Congress from any group. The first movement alternated between whitewater turbulence and the quasi-orgasmic cry of the piece's pervasive main theme. The pizzicati of the second movement were deliberate, giving the full center of each plucked note, and the soft slow section and third movement were even quieter and more expressive than on the recording. With the audience lulled to drowsy quiescence after the third movement, wry smiles from the players forecast the particularly savage attack they gave to the opening of the fourth movement, featuring seamless and natural shifts between contrasting meters.

The opening Mozart quartet was no less beautiful, K. 421, a rare quartet by this composer in a minor key. Why did this piece, dismissed for various unexciting qualities by Norman Middleton in the program notes, make it onto the Arcanto Quartet's wish list (described by cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras in a recent interview)? The answer is that it is a gorgeous piece, and its beauty was revealed so well by this performance, from the opening sigh motif of the first movement, the shadow of an interior thought, later passed around the four instruments in the development. The second movement's stillness had a pulse of vitality running through it, and little embellishments added on the repeats of the fourth movement's variations provided further diversion.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, The Arcanto Quartet, sharp as nails in U.S. debut (Washington Post, October 15)
For Bartók, the Takács Quartet remains my favored interpretation, but the way the Arcanto Quartet played the Hungarian composer's fifth string quartet had considerable appeal. The Library of Congress commissioned this piece, and it was premiered here in 1935 by the Kolisch String Quartet: an original program, signed by the four players, was shown in a display case at the auditorium's entrance, next to Bartók's manuscript score and his correspondence with the Library of Congress. This performance had a violent opening but even at its most aggressive moments, like the brutal, shrieked conclusion of the first movement, did not cross the line into an ugliness of tone. The character of playing shifted with the chameleon-like variation of the score, from the melancholy avian calls and night murmurs of the second movement to the bouncy cross-rhythms of folksy fiddle motifs over insect buzzings in the third. The eclectic effects in the fourth movement -- glissandi, spiccato bow repetitions -- were appropriately weird but did not draw attention to themselves (the same for the little faux-Haydn serenade near the end of the last movement), and the fifth movement was outrageously fast, giving the visceral thrill of speed but retaining dynamic shape.

This evening the Library of Congress is one of the stops on the U.S. tour of The English Concert (October 14, 8 pm), with violinist Rachel Podger and mezzo-soprano Alice Coote.

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