Fine Arts Quartet, Masters of Precision
The quartet handles three quite different composers with sensitivity and tight ensemble playing.
The Fine Arts Quartet—Ralph Evans and Efim Boico, violins; Juan-Miguel Hernandez, viola; and Robert Cohen, cello—presented the final program of their winter season at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s Zelazo Center. On the bill were Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 33, Hob. III:39 (“The Bird”), Camille Saint Saëns’ String Quartet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 153, and Robert Schumann’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41, No. 1.
The Haydn quartet is a charmer. The first movement, Allegro moderato, features the high violin voice chirping sweetly—a welcome sound for a lovely spring afternoon. Ralph Evans plays with a clear, warm sound that is inviting and complements his colleagues beautifully. The second movement Scherzo: Allegretto, a sober minuet, the ensemble played elegantly; Evans and Boico conveyed with simplicity and joy the music-box sweetness in the trio section. The third movement, Adagio ma non troppo, is a tender movement in which the quartet demonstrated how an adagio can move forward without feeling pushed. They steered the phrases across the bar lines, neither overemphasizing the downbeat nor bogging down with unnecessarily maudlin gestures—pure, sweet motion at its finest. In the Finale: Rondo-Presto, the quartet captured the agreeable lightness and buoyancy that Haydn put to paper. The last bar of the presto is seasoned with a bit of Haydn’s humor and impishness. I expected the music to go on, but instead the last phrase finished so abruptly that it left me to wonder what was to become of Haydn’s bird.
The Schumann String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41, No. 1 was fabulous. The tender introductory theme, imitated among the four voices, gave over to a repetitive rhythmic motif emphasizing the second beat and creating a syncopated, insistent energy throughout the movement. The Scherzo: Presto-Intermezzo-Presto was light, fleet, giddy-up music that sandwiched an exquisite bit of viola playing by Hernandez. The Adagio was marked by a luxurious cello line sung rhapsodically by Cohen. For my taste, parts of this movement got a little schmaltzy as each voice offered up bars of rhythmically indulgent arpeggios, performed too liberally to keep the music steadily on course. This is not a major complaint—the players did this with clear intent—I just felt at sea by comparison to the exceptional clarity in everything else they played. The fourth movement, Presto, was a full-throated romp to the finish.
The gentlemen of the Fine Arts Quartet are magnificent musicians. Evans and Boico play together with all the synchronicity one would expect from their years together; their bows move as one, and their articulations and sound match like they are connected to the same mind. Add to that the exquisite viola playing of Hernandez and the whiz-bang cello playing of Cohen, and the Fine Arts Quartet shines radiantly.