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Cuarteto Casals: Supernova in Ligeti

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Metamorphosis (Bartók, Ligeti, Kurtág), Cuarteto Casals

(released on August 10, 2010)
HMC 902062 | 54'13"
Both in concert and on disc, Spain's Cuarteto Casals is one of the groups we follow around here, and we expected good things from their return to Washington on Saturday night, at the Kreeger Museum. The group's best performances have the verve and power that one hears from many string quartets, but also much more than that, an amber warmth that predominates over acidic buzz, and a collaborative esprit -- rather than a competitive one -- that allows greater dynamic and rhythmic freedom without losing cohesion. These four young musicians, two of whom are brothers, also have a knack for choosing unusual repertory -- from Toldrà and Turina, to Juan Arriaga, to Ligeti and Kurtág, in their latest recording -- and for playing the core repertory with polish and unexpected interpretative choices.

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Boccherini, op. 32/3-6, Quartetto Borciani

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Boccherini, op. 32/1-2 and 29, Quartetto Borciani
This concert, in the lively acoustic of the Kreeger's Great Hall, opened with one of the several dozen string quartets by Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), op. 32, no. 5. As much as we love to hear the Mozart and especially Haydn quartets on chamber music programs, Boccherini would be a welcome alternative for the early classical slot far more often than we currently hear him -- look at all that chamber music! As it turned out, it was our good luck to be reminded of this on a particularly appropriate day: the concert took place on the composer's birthday, February 19. (Because he spent the last phase of his career in Spain, it was another reason for the Ambassador of Spain, who lives just across Foxhall Rd. from the Kreeger, to co-sponsor this concert.) Boccherini was a gifted melodist, creating tunes like the first theme of the first movement of this quartet, almost too simple but yielding many good ideas in a streamlined way. It is not fancy or overly intellectual music, but it sounds very good, and this performance gave every indication that the group's new Boccherini CD, recorded last fall, will be worth hearing. The forms of each movement were marked incisively, with a beautiful handling of the cadenza at the end of the fourth movement, marked by Boccherini as "Capriccio ad libitum," by violinist Abel Tomàs, who sat first violin for this piece only.

The group's performance of György Ligeti's first string quartet, subtitled Métamorphoses nocturnes, was nothing short of revelatory. Many young string quartets are playing Ligeti's quartets these days -- the Pacifica, Parker, Brentano, Galatea, Artemis, Hagen, for a start -- but few have brought out all of the first quartet's best qualities like this performance (they also played the work during their Carnegie Hall debut in 2007). This quartet dates from the early 1950s, just in the period after Ligeti had survived World War II: working in Budapest, he and his friend György Kurtág devoted themselves to the music of Bartók, with Ligeti even making ethnomusicological outings into the countryside to collect Hungarian folk songs. Bartók's influence can be heard throughout the work, in the irregular, folk-influenced rhythms and the development of the chromatic motif that opens it, as well as the many hallucinatory instrumental effects. First violinist Vera Martínez led the group with a tone that could be both ferocious and seductive, that last an important part of the nocturnal inspiration that is sometimes missed. The group's new recording shows their understanding of the historical background, pairing the piece with Bartók's fourth quartet and Kurtág's twelve microludes for string quartet, op. 13.

All of the group's suavity seemed to evaporate in the second half, when pianist Andreas Klein joined them for Schumann's piano quintet, op. 44. This performance was a reminder that even the most exquisite piece of chamber music -- something that we have heard memorably on its own and as the accompaniment to modern dance -- can be rendered mediocre by the wrong performance. Where Joyce Yang, playing the work with the Takács Quartet, was equal parts transparency and force where she needed it, Klein's hand at the open-lidded piano, an already loud instrument in that space, was all brute force. He did not seem to give any quarter to the other musicians, pushing and pulling the tempo to suit his own needs, and the strings responded in kind, generally with hammering force. This led to some disjunction rhythmically between piano and strings in the faster movements, and an unsatisfying, overblown ensemble sound, a disappointing end to the evening.

The next concerts at the Kreeger Museum will be the annual June Chamber Music Festival (June 10 to 17).

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