Fine Arts Quartet’s Saint-Saens Sunday
Saint-Saens wrote his String Quartet No. 1 in 1899, with Belgian virtuoso Eugene Ysaye in mind. Naturally, the first violin part abounds with showy virtuoso writing.
Ralph Evans, first violinist with the Fine Arts Quartet, did just fine with Saint-Saens’ fireworks Sunday afternoon. Second violinist Efim Boico, new violist Nicolo Eugelmi and cellist Wolfgang Laufer were also on top of their parts, which are formidable in this dense, furiously busy composition.
Their energy rolled like a wave through the first movement and gave it thrust and cohesion. The second movement, a scherzo in feeling but a theme and variations in form, is all about brilliance topping brilliance; the players made it work. “The Molto Adagio” is a heartfelt song, mainly for the first violin. The throbbing accompaniment felt poignant, partly because of the musicians’ sensitive dynamic details and partly because of Saint-Saens’ subtle rhythmic displacements.
Hardly anyone plays this piece, and I wondered why until I heard the finale. Saint-Saens attempts to top all that has gone before by turning ever more dense and loud. It just sounded overbearing and tedious Sunday; it made me think of the Fox News network.
Hardly anyone plays Saint-Saens’ Quartet No. 2, from 1918, when the composer was 83. I preferred the more modest and sly No. 2 to the flashy First, even though the FAQ sounded more at home in the First.
The Fine Arts has long claimed Shostakovich as a specialty, and a new violist hasn’t changed that. Sunday, they gave each pithy comment in the succinct Quartet No. 7 a distinct profile and texture. The finale recalls materials from the bright vigor of the first movement, the mournful cello and viola melodies, the aching pulsation of the second and the biting fury of the third. Shostakovich transformed them all into a weightless dance that seems to evaporate before our ears.
Eugelmi seemed a square peg in a square hole with the FAQ. Where his predecessor, Yuri Gandelsman, often seemed to prod his colleagues along, Eugelmi seems more inclined to listen, find his opening and drop in discreetly. But this was his first concert as a regular member of the Fine Arts Quartet. We’ll see how the relationship ripens.
This concert took place in the Zelazo Center of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where the Fine Arts Quartet is in residence. The quartet’s next concert is set for 3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 15. Tickets: 414 229-4308.