Super String Quartet Sunday
I couldn’t decide, so I took some of both Sunday afternoon.
I got to Wisconsin Conservatory at 2 p.m. and heard the Philomusica Quartet
play Borodin’s melodious String Quartet No. 2 and Glazunov’s Five Novelettes. Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No. 1 was coming, but I left at intermission and headed to the UWM Zelazo Center to hear the Fine Arts Quartet.
Violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violist Nicolò Eugelmi and cellist Wolfgang Laufer were at work on the third movement — the trio of the speedy Menuetto, to be exact — of Opus 77 No. 1 as I dashed up to the balcony. I tried to sneak in quietly, and thought I had it made when I got through the glass door soundlessly, just as the minuet theme returned. Then the seat squeaked outrageously when I lowered it. Sorry, fellows; next time, I’ll bring some WD40.
The Fine Arts sprinted through the Finale with a driven brilliance and moved on to Rachmaninoff’s youthful, abbreviated Quartet No. 1, from 1889.
The Romance: Andante Espressivo sounds like Rachmaninoff. It’s dense and dark, and the Fine Arts gave it plenty of vibrato, which read as throbbing urgency. The merry Scherzo doesn’t sound like Rachmaninoff; you might guess Mendelssohn, in an especially good mood. A suave, cool lyrical trio sits between skittering, syncopated Scherzo sections. The Fine Arts’ nifty ricochet bowing, light touch and fleet tempo made it crackle.
They finished with Fritz Kreisler’s 1919 Quartet in A minor, an unlikely blend of overripe Romantic melodrama and bon-vivant good humor. The piece has its charms, but sometimes you have to wonder what Kreisler was thinking. His arbitrary insertion of an overwrought cello theme from the first movement into an otherwise cheerful Finale is especially wince-inducing. The players took the piece on its own terms and slathered on the rubato, and everything they did sounded as right as pastry in Vienna.
It’s tempting to compare the Philomusica with the Fine Arts when you hear them in the same afternoon. The halls and repertoire differed so that comparisons are difficult, if not dangerous. Both ensembles are very good, and both were on their game. Ensemble and intonation were excellent all around, and both groups interpreted the music persuasively.
But I do think I heard a difference in ethos. The Fine Arts plays more like four soloists. Everyone is always ready to elbow into the mix, and everything seems bigger than life. The Philomusica sounds to me more like a collegial foursome; pleasure in the act of making music among friends glows through everything I’ve heard violinists Jeanyi Kim and Alexander Mandl, violist Nathan Hackett and cellist Andrien Zitoun play, and that is very appealing.
Glazunov wrote the Five Novelettes as a lad of 16, and to my ear he never topped it. He went about it like a choreographer doing character studies. Each movement examines a well-known musical type: Spanish, Oriental, Monkish, waltz, Hungarian. Borodin drew stereotypical national traits vividly in familiar terms, but with some creative twist. Each but the chant-inflected novelette is in a fast-slow-fast A-B-A form.
The Philomusica understood and conveyed both the cartoonish sides of these episodes and their surprising subtleties. In the Interludium in modo antico (the Monkish bit), they played non-vibrato to sound just like an old chapel organ. The waltz episode grew from a polite dance lesson in a private salon to a whirling ball in a grand room. It sounded like fun to play in a string quartet, and it was certainly fun to hear the Philomusica play.