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Quatuor Diotima II: Romantic

(This article has been corrected since initial publication.)

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G. Onslow, String Quartets,
Quatuor Diotima

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L. Janáček, String Quartets,
Quatuor Diotima
The Coolidge Auditorium, the venue hosting a generally excellent free concert series at the Library of Congress, is a beautiful, intimate hall. The acoustic is warm and resonant, but it also tends to reveal weaknesses in a performance by bringing them so directly to the ear. Such was the case with the second consecutive evening spent with the Quatuor Diotima here in Washington: after a concert of contemporary music at La Maison Française, the French string quartet with a flair for the fluorescent performed some 19th-century music at the Library of Congress. Romantic music is a sort of secondary interest for this group, most of whose recordings have focused on the music of living composers, and their performance was often beautiful for its understated qualities, focusing the ear on finely etched details, while it lacked true expressive power at the forte end of the dynamic spectrum.

It was good to hear a lesser Schubert string quartet opening this concert, the seventh quartet (D major, D. 94). It is not a work of exceptional merit like the composer's mature quartets, but it has flashes of inspiration, as in the second theme of the first movement, and shows an admirable grasp of the classical forms it uses -- quite remarkable when you realize Schubert was all of 14 years old when he composed it. The musicians seemed generally less comfortable in this sort of music, with first violinist Yun-Peng Zhao a little scratchy and small of tone when he was exposed in the high range: having to play through his glasses falling off his face at the end of the fourth movement was no help. The second movement benefited from a sweet, tender interpretative approach, while the Menuetto had a pleasing, rustic swagger and a pompous stateliness in the trio -- all of it over before you knew it. The fourth movement (Presto) was impressively energetic but not quite aligned across the ensemble in terms of intonation or rhythmic precision.

This was the latest in a series of performances of Beethoven's op. 131, one of the most strange and wonderful of the composer's late quartets -- heard recently from the Takács Quartet and the Emerson Quartet before that. The Diotima brought an irresistible suavity and subdued mystery to the opening fugue, not hammering any of the articulations, even soft-pedaling the second note of the subject, which sticks out like a sore thumb. Likewise, the recitative sections had the free feeling of improvisation, and the meaty variations and slow movement were treated with the ensemble's hallmark delicacy, subtlety, and warm intensity. Less felicitous were the renditions of the fast, more strident parts, various parts slightly akimbo in the fifth-movement Presto and rough dotted rhythms in the final movement. There was much to admire and set the mind to thought, but not quite an ideal performance.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Ambitious Quatuor Diotima can’t quite carry complex program (Washington Post, April 16)
The Diotima is going through a transitional personnel situation right now, appearing here in Washington for almost the first time with a new second violinist, Guillaume Latour. He is replacing Vanessa Szigeti, a relative of Joseph Szigeti who grew up in France (her father is second violinist in the Quatuor Enesco), who who was with the quartet for only about six months, herself replacing Naaman Sluchin, whom we heard on all of the group's previous visits (Szigeti's picture is still on the group's Web site). Perhaps the uncertainty of the situation undermined some of the group's confidence, which came out most in a still pleasing performance of Smetana's first quartet ("From My Life") -- in the fourth movement, there was a momentary loss of coordination between second violin and viola that started with a page turn. The first movement was passionately turbulent, led by the viola on its plangent triadic theme, and the second movement contrasted an earthy Polka with a more refined Viennese salon trio. The third movement highlighted the opposition of the cello solo, which opens the slow movement, and the upper three strings in close interplay. The fourth movement was a little too fast, which may have contributed to the coordination issue, but it ended with a dramatic return of the first movement's main theme.

The next free concerts at the Library of Congress will feature Juilliard Baroque (April 14, 8 pm) and Concerto Köln (April 20, 8 pm).

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