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Happy Stradivari Christmas!

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Ligeti, String Quartets, Parker Quartet
(Naxos, 2009)
The Library of Congress again celebrated "Stradivari Christmas" on Wednesday night, the anniversary of the celebrated Cremonese instrument maker's death. Although Antonio Stradivari died in 1737, he lives on through the sound of the exquisite instruments he crafted, and it is that sense of life that has been celebrated at the Library on or around December 18 since 1936. The honor of playing on the Stradivarius instruments of their choice from the Library's collection fell again to the Parker Quartet, which gave this concert for the first time in 2009. We have been following this group for several years, since not long after their formation at the New England Conservatory in 2002, and although they have impressed me before, with this performance they struck my ear as having transformed into a different class of ensemble.

Mendelssohn's string quartets can leave me cold, as one of them (op. 44/2) did at the Musicians from Marlboro concert last month. It is true that op. 44/1 (no. 3 in D major) is a more pleasing work, but it was the musicality and litheness of the playing that made the Parker Quartet's performance so pleasing. A tone was set especially in the B theme of the first movement, played sotto voce and yet with intensity, which sustained the excitement of the work. The same character appeared again in the gentle Menuetto with its somber trio and in the Corelli-like serenade of the third movement, the twin violin lines intertwined over the pizzicato lower parts. Where the first movement had seemed fast but not rushed, the finale was exceedingly fast but still beautifully phrased, with peaks and valleys to prevent the piece from becoming an empty display.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, Parker Quartet uses Stradivari treasures to splendid effect at Library of Congress (Washington Post, December 20)

Mark Kanny, Parker Quartet makes strong debut in Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 19)

Stradivari Anniversary:

Miró Quartet (2012)
Borromeo Quartet (2011)
Sybarite5 (2010)
Parker Quartet (2009)
Harlem Quartet (2008)
Formosa Quartet (2007)
Ensō Quartet (2006)
Jupiter Quartet (2005)
It was disappointing to hear that the program would not include the Arcadiana string quartet of Thomas Adès, which was the highlight of the same Musicians from Marlboro concert last month. (That piece's technical challenges are daunting enough without throwing in the risk of playing on unfamiliar instruments.) The disappointment faded quickly, however, because the replacement, Shostakovich's ninth string quartet (E-flat major, op. 117 -- last heard from the Jerusalem Quartet ) from 1964, was the high point of the concert anyway, as the more recent pieces have been on every performance we have heard from the Parker Quartet. The same burning intensity from the Mendelssohn was here again in the opening of the first movement, with none of the players trying to push the sound of the Stradivarius instruments too much, allowed the first violin to soar sweetly and for the cello to have room for its jolly theme later. The second movement's tragic lament, recalled in the parallel fourth movement, featured the same intelligent sense of ensemble, with no lead part ever required to give more than was needed to be heard, and the third movement, with its perverse gestures of a Rossini overture, was vicious at its loudest parts. In the fifth movement, first violinist Daniel Chong led the revolt in ferocious sounds, beginning with the heavy-handed folk-like section and reaching its climax in an obsessive, spiteful fugue section.

In every concert we have reviewed, the Parkers have collaborated with more senior musicians, with Kim Kashkashian on second viola in the Brahms G minor quintet (JCCGW, 2010), with members of the Borromeo Quartet (Library of Congress, 2008), and with Roger Tapping on second viola in Mozart's third quintet (Corcoran, 2006). Here it was Kikuei Ikeda, violist of the now-disbanded Tokyo String Quartet, who took the second viola part for Dvořák's op. 97 string quintet, where he was often featured in prominent ways (with the opening gestures in the first two movements, among others). This turned out to be the least satisfying part of the program, though, with the pristine intonation and razor-sharp ensemble unsettled just slightly by the addition of Ikeda. The first movement had a moody feel to it, in spite of the folk-like melodic material, with the second movement as rambunctious as a hoe down, followed by a melancholy slow movement and a jaunty dance finale. In spite of some shortcomings, it was a thrill to hear two Stradivari violas -- the "Tuscan-Medici" from 1690 and the "Cassavetti" from 1727 (one-fifth of the ten Stradivarius violas known to survive in the entire world) -- side by side in this delightful work.

The Parker Quartet and violist Kikeui Ikeda perform again this evening, on the concert series at Evermay in Georgetown.

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