Pro Arte Quartet, Capital-C Classical at the Wilson Center
The Pro Arte String Quartet, from Madison, charms a crowd at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center.
The Pro Arte celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012. The quartet, founded in Belgium, happened to be in Madison during a 1938 tour when the Germans invaded their country. Thanks to the quick thinking of the University of Wisconsin Chancellor, the quartet found a new home in Madison. Current members David Perry, Suzanne Beia, Sally Chisholm and Parry Karp continue to call the University of Wisconsin their home, even as each maintains a career as a soloist. The quartet has close ties to UW students and even holds reading sessions of works by student composers.
They paired Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C, K. 546, and Haydn’s Quartet in C Major, Opus 54, No. 2. Besides the relation of tonality, both works were composed in 1788. The Adagio and Fugue is a work of great drama, with the subject of the fugue described by a friend as a “60-year ear-worm.” The Pro Arte brought out both the storm and stress of the introductory adagio and the obsessive counterpoint found in Mozart’s fugue, with all voices of the fugue perfectly balanced.
Haydn’s buoyant wit and canny sense of structure followed. While the quartet is nominally in C major, in truth C minor is equally prominent. The entire piece plays out along this parallel relationship, and Haydn makes this evident with an unexpected shift of mode in the first measures. The Pro Arte’s performance was extraordinary, perfectly balancing the humor and the drama of Haydn’s composition, from the pauses and isolated violin notes in the first movement to the drama of the minor-key slow movement (which brings to mind the Mozart adagio), to the unexpected quiet, genial ending of the last movement.
The second pair of pieces were both from the pen of Franz Schubert: a German dance, penned at age 16, coupled with the D minor quartet known as “Death and the Maiden,” written four years before his death. Again, these pieces featured matched tonal centers; the latter work also paired well with the Haydn in its frequent shifts from major to minor mode.
Schubert is frequently seen as a transitional figure between the classical structures of 18th-century Vienna and the full-bodied Romanticism of the next generation. While the German Dance was a prime example of the former, the sprawling D minor quartet is very much an example of the latter. The nickname of this quartet springs from Schubert’s recycling of the melody of his lied from 1817 as the basis of the theme-and-variation second movement. The Pro Arte’s superlative performance highlighted the overtly Romantic character of Schubert’s writing without sacrificing the clarity or sense of the formal structures that are so much a part of 18th and early 19th century Viennese music.
One other characteristic was evident throughout this program: The members of the quartet enjoyed each piece they played, and the joy of their performance was infectious. The audience responded with hearty and heart-felt ovations.