Sunday, March 28, 2010

Review: Jupiter String Quartet

March 27, Virginia Commonwealth University

Several of the most highly touted young American string quartets have performed in Richmond over the past year. None has made a stronger impression than the Jupiter Quartet – violinists Nelson Lee and Megan Freivogel, violist Liz Freivogel and cellist Daniel McDonough – did in a program of Beethoven, Bartók and Dvořák in the latest installment of VCU’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts.

As it demonstrated in Dvořák’s “American” Quartet (the F major, Op. 96), the group can summon the plummy, refined and strongly projected collective tone that has been the standard of big-league quartets since the 1940s and ’50s heyday of the Budapest. The Jupiter, however avoids the downside of that sound: homogeneity of style, tone production and treatment of tempos, accents, phrasing and dynamics. These musicians know when to be elegant or mellow, and when not to.

Their treatment of the opening movement of Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18, No. 6, was a tip-off that this was not going to be a garden-variety quartet performance. Beethoven marked this movement allegro con brio, and the Jupiter took him at his word, playing briskly and dashingly, pouncing on accents, emphasizing contrasts of volume, taking great care with its details of instrumental voicing yet exuding spontaneity – making this playful music genuinely playful.

Throughout the Beethoven, the group sounded totally engaged, not just with the notes but with the music’s spirit and its differing energy levels. In dance tempos, here and elsewhere, the musicians' feet were as animated as their arms – an unmistakable sign, I think, of their physical as well as mental involvement with the music on their stands.

The Jupiter’s treatment of Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 was comparably energized, and faithful to the very different style of this composer and the unique tonal qualities that he seeks from strings. Bartók’s sonorities, whether harsh or rarified, muted or not, clustered in dense chunks or spun out in fine threads, came through clearly, and the folk-derived accents and rhythms came through idiomatically.

The three pieces offered many individual moments to shine, and the Jupiter’s players did so consistently, from Lee’s sweetly lyrical reading of the adagio of the Beethoven and Liz Freivogel’s initial statement of the first-movement theme in the Dvořák to McDonough’s just-guttural-enough cello solo in the central largo of the Bartók.

The dual voices of Lee and Megan Freivogel were beautifully woven in the slow movement of the Dvořák – which, for a change, was a true lento.