Sure, Shostakovich Can Be Happy
Fine Arts Quartet finds the Russian’s merry side, along with a rarely-performed work of Italian romanticism.
The Fine Arts Quartet closed their season Sunday afternoon at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Zelazo Center. The quartet, which includes violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Bocio, cellist Robert Cohen and interim violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez, once again showed their mastery of a vast range of the standard repertoire in their handling of works by Beethoven and Shostakovich. Their continuing commitment to exploring rare works was represented by another work a the this concert: a quartet by Giuseppe Martucci, a late nineteenth century Italian conductor/composer.
Beethoven’s “early” quartets were already a revolutionary departure from past practice. Beethoven’s second of his sixteen quartets — String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No 2 –begins conventionally enough. The courtly style opens as Haydn might, in a formal, polite way. The crisp presentation relaxed in the development, already breaking from the predictable classical model. Evans, on first violin, sang a romantic cantabile to open the second movement. The mood was broken by an accelerated development of the same theme. Both violins led the way through a bright scherzo. That pace was retained into the finale. A sparkling, recurring theme drove a rondo-like development that slips from quiet to loud, from slow to fast all the while accelerating or decelerating. The quartet excels with fast-paced music, but their assurance as a group was more clearly evident as the group wound its way through the ever changing landscape of the finale – always in sync and always high energy.
The Quartet was especially precise in their interpretation of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 1 in C major, Op 49. This short work contains elements of cheerfulness rare to Shostakovich. (He called it as a “springtime” composition.) The quartet opened with a simple motif. A syncopated rhythm in the cello lay under a minor-key viola melody as violins soared overhead. What might have been a sad melody was buoyed by the catchy phrasing of the motif. A moderato second movement featured a lovely song by violist Hernandez, developed by others, then ending with a return to the melody on the viola. A fast paced scherzo stretching the tonal range of each instrument was interrupted by an uncharacteristically merry tune. This simple spring song was some distance from a familiar Shostakovich style. But much of the work was familiar – its use of tuneful melodies in the low register of the viola, followed by similar measures in the high range of the cello, capped by high violins contributing to the atmospherics. Hernandez led the way in this quartet, demonstrating the effectiveness of a rich, mellow melody written for the resonance and range of the viola.
Guest pianist, Michele Campanella, opened the second half with a piano solo, a fantastical “Reminiscence” on Verdi’s opera Aida – Danza sacra e duetto finale, S. 436 by Franz Liszt. The work was as flamboyant as the reputation of its composer. Favorite selections were quoted from the beginning and end of the opera. Achingly lovely Aida arias emerged from a cloud of fancy. The final moments in the opera — where Aida is affirming of her love while entombed with her lover — was treated as an isolated simple melody, then buried in a dramatic crash of chords, only to emerge again as a final recollection. Campanella pounded madly at the keyboard for several measures and just as assuredly retreated to the delicate remorseful melody. As Campanella shyly acknowledged applause for this recital, it was clear that the performer was far from the flamboyant Liszt, and more the mild-mannered pianist renowned for his ability to channel Liszt when at the keyboard.
Campanella joined the quartet for a rare performance of Martucci’s the Piano Quintet in C major, Op. 45. The entire work is built upon lush romantic melodies that engage the entire quartet over a florid piano accompaniment. Occasionally, the piano took the melody, but primarily the piano maintained the pace, sometimes lightly, often dramatically. An active piano can overwhelm a string quartet when not restrained. But the music rarely called for such restraint. The score surged forward through one romantic melody after another. Martucci writes romantic music sometimes as flamboyant as that of Liszt. Campanella carried some of the same aggressive playing into this work. This thoroughly Italian, somewhat operatic work drew a standing ovation from the audience.
Cohen introduced the works to the audience, and the cellist fitted naturally into an educator’s role. Both new players are comfortable with contemporary opportunities to communicate with today’s audiences incorporating blogs, musical analysis, consultation and “diaries” on the Internet. (Note Cohen’s website and violist Hernandez’ website and Facebook page .)
To increase connections between the Quartet and its Milwaukee audience, a local Friends of the Fine Arts Quartet group has been formed. Click here to request information.
The quartet performed a different selection of works at a community concert at St. John’s on the Lake Thursday evening. At that event, Mayor Tom Barrett honored the quartet for the 50 years they have been quartet in residence at UW-Milwaukee. Milwaukee has been fortunate to enjoy eight (and more) concerts each year by this internationally respected quartet.
The Fine Arts Quartet will play four June concerts at the UW-Milwaukee, each Sunday beginning June 1st. Those with current season tickets will be able to reserve their seats from April 1st through May 7th. General ticket sales begin May 8th at the UWM box-office (phone 414 229-4308). Tickets are only $10 per concert ($5 for students) – an extraordinary bargain for a world class quartet.