Tom Strini
Fine Arts Quartet

Missing man formation

By - Mar 7th, 2011 12:48 am
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Wolfgang Laufer, a few years ago.

Sunday afternoon, Wolfgang Laufer stepped before the Fine Arts Quartet audience to explain his recent absences. He needed a walker to get to the center of the house; back surgery had hobbled him. In a terrible run of bad luck, his wife was diagnosed with Hodgkins’ lymphoma at nearly the same time his back troubles became intolerable. That turn of events explained not only his absence, but his decision to retire from the quartet and from UWM, where the quartet is in residence. Laufer joined both in 1979.

A gasp arose from the house at this news. Just a few months ago, Laufer appeared as vigorous as ever.

I wish I could report that violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violist Nicolò Eugelmi and guest cellist Robert Cohen responded to the emotion of the moment with an inspired reading of Hugo Wolf String Quartet in D minor, but that didn’t happen. Pitch, rhythm and ensemble were messy throughout. No one had a notion of how the strands in Wolf’s relentlessly dense textures ought to have been balanced. And no one seemed to have any idea of where phrases were headed, much less any vision of the big picture. They played the entire piece mezzo-forte and louder.Tedious desperation was the salient quality of this high-effort, low-nuance reading.

And Laufer today.

I can understand how that could happen. Wolf’s thickly scored, insanely complicated and, frankly, structurally unwieldy composition requires a great deal of practice and the settling of a great many interpretive questions if it is to make any sense at all in performance. A foursome has to live with such a piece for a while; the chances of making it sing with an emergency cellist are about zero.

Schumann’s Quartet in F, Opus 41 No. 2, is no pushover either, but it is much more straightforward and coherent that Wolf’s piece. And the difference in the performances reflected that.

Evans, Boico, Eugelmi and Cohen sounded completely transformed when they took it on after intermission. Intonation snapped into place, along with the rhythmic proportions.  They strained to find their way through Wolf; their Schumann was effortless, joyous, tasty.

The players’ opened up the charm of the music: Its three-quarter lilt of the opening movement, the sly shift in the impetus of the phrases, the funny little off-beat rhythms in the scherzo, the virtuoso jollity of the finale. Wolf was hard work for them and for us. Schumann sounded like fun to play, and it was certainly fun to hear.

This program, given at UWM’s Zelazo Center, concluded the Fine Arts Quartet’s 2010-11 season. The FAQ’s Summer Evenings of Music series begins June 1.

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