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Jupiter Quartet Brings Music Back to NAS

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Mendelssohn (op. posth. 80) / Beethoven (op. 135), Jupiter String Quartet
After winning the Banff Competition in 2004, the Jupiter String Quartet gave a pair of top-notch concerts in Washington in 2005, at the Corcoran and the Library of Congress. For that and for personal reasons (the first violinist, Nelson Lee, is the son of my undergraduate piano teacher), their subsequent performances here -- back at the Corcoran in 2008, was the most recent -- have been must-hear events. The group's recordings have trailed off a bit, too: the last thing we heard from them were made live at the 2010 Music@Menlo festival. (Second violinist Meg Freivogel and cellist Daniel McDonough had a baby last December, so life must be getting interesting.) We were happy indeed to get to hear them on Sunday afternoon, for the first time since 2008, when they brought music back to the eccentric auditorium of the National Academy of Sciences, which has been closed for renovations the last couple of years.

It was sometimes brilliant, sometimes tender Mozart first, the genial D major quartet, K. 575, which featured the Jupiter's warm, cohesive ensemble sound quite scrumptiously in the second movement. The other three movements moved perhaps a bit too fast for their Allegretto tempo markings, not harried but also not allowing this gentle music to unfold comfortably. The sound panel-fueled acoustic brings sounds quickly to the ear, including individual bites of attack, but it also made it easy to appreciate the best individual tone of this foursome, the ripe, flavorful viola of Liz Freivogel (sister of Meg). McDonough also had a pleasing turn in the cello's solo musings in the trio of the third movement. The concert's final work, Brahms's first quartet (C minor, op. 51/1), impressed even more, because it made a strong case for the piece, when this composer's string quartets have generally struck me as inferior to the chamber music with piano. The Jupiter's interpretation did not go for loud and aggressive sounds, giving a hushed, interior quality even to the agitated first movement. The second-movement Romanze glowed with an introspective softness, and the violins soft-pedaled their parts in the third movement, revealing the viola theme as the central melody, also taking the pizzicati in the trio quite gently. This approach, not squeezing the emotion out of the piece, really allowed the music its secrets, its shyness, even in the often strident Finale, up to the overwrought coda.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Music review: Jupiter String Quartet (Washington Post, October 9)
As we have noted time and again with this quartet, their forte is with more recent music. At their previous concerts, it was Britten's quartets especially that impressed, and here it was Bartók's first quartet, op. 7, that seemed the work the group most loved to play. All four musicians dug into the piece, with a sense of released power perhaps held back in the Mozart, which did sound a little precious by comparison. This was Bartók that was alternately intense and elegiac in the first movement, and then cranked up to ferocity in the second movement. After a somber introduction, the third movement was launched with the barbaro repeated notes and a folk-like growl in the tone, yet coordinated at the same time that the tempo was handled with great flexibility.

You will have to wait until this winter for the next chance to hear a concert at the National Academy of Sciences, with the Imani Winds (February 10, 3 pm).

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