Tom Strini

Fine Arts Quartet, once more with feeling

By - Sep 25th, 2011 08:18 pm

A special warmth of sound rose from the Fine Arts Quartet Sunday afternoon, as the group played Haydn’s String Quartet, Opus 71 No. 2, Bernard Hermann’s Echoes for String Quartet and Dvorak’s Quintet, Opus 81.


Pianist Menahem Pressler.

Violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violist Nicolò Eugelmi and guest cellist Desmond Hoebig played beautifully in tune throughout the concert. They lavished tasty, unanimous and poignant vibrato on their lines, especially as they neared cadences. In an interview last Wednesday, Evans said that the FAQ seeks to find expression in every note. They made good on that Sunday.

Evans and Boico, especially, released their inner opera singers in the slow movement of the Haydn. In their extended duet, they managed to make Haydn’s cantabile lines at once ardent and delicate, the very image of both Classical feeling and restraint. Overall, this was some of the best Haydn I’ve heard from the Fine Arts. The four players got the rhythmic buoyancy and textural transparency that are crucial to the charm of this music. They gave the last two movements the earthy feel of village dances — outdoor dances on sunny days.

They adapted to the gloom of Herrmann’s 1965 Echoes, comprising nine short episodes in one movement, by playing much more legato and much more into the string. I think they showed this piece in the best possible light, but it was nonetheless tedious. Herrmann — yes, the same composer of Psycho and many other great film scores — for some reason insisted on resuscitating his Prelude theme as linking material between each and every episode. So we hear, no fewer than nine times, a tune that essentially outlines a minor triad. Very often, the connective tissue lasts longer than the episodes it connects.  What could Herrmann have been thinking?

Pressler, founding pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio and a chamber-music legend, brought his great energy and taste to a scintillating reading of Dvorak’s Quintet. Piano touch and its effect on tone has always been a mystery to me; I’m mean, you’re punching keys on a machine. How could it matter?


Guest cellist Desmond Hoebig.

But it does. Pressler can draw many colors from the instrument, but his neutral is a luscious, rich sound and a very good fit with this group. He’s famously communicative from the keyboard, and his prompting did much to unify the phrasing and the group’s larger interpretive impulse.

The tendency in Czech folk music to swing from sentimental song to lively dance in a heartbeat permeates this piece. The dances sparkled, and the songs filled the hall with sweet nostalgia.

Some of the feeling surely had to do with Wolfgang Laufer, the quartet’s long-time cellist, who died suddenly last June. Pressler and Laufer had been friends for decades, and at Pressler’s prompting the group played the slow movement from Brahms’ Quintet in F minor as a memorial.

Hoebig did not only fill in for the departed, he fit in extremely well. I have no idea whether he is a candidate, but the Fine Arts could do worse to bring him into the fold.

The concert took place in the Zelazo Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where the Fine Arts Quartet is in residence. The place was packed, as tickets are free this season. If you plan to attend upcoming FAQ concerts, do get tickets ahead of time, from the Peck School of the Arts box office, 414 229-4308.

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