Saturday, September 13, 2008

Review: Daedalus Quartet

Sept. 13, Virginia Commonwealth University, Rchmond

Baring the soul is one thing. Baring the soul and the id is something else altogether, as one discovers in Leoš Janáček’s Second String Quartet (“Intimate Letters”), a tonal diary of the elderly composer’s unconsummated fixation with a much younger woman. There is no other music quite like this. It is not a stylization of physical passion, along the lines of Wagner’s "Tristan und Isolde" or Schoenberg’s "Verklärte Nacht," but an unvarnished expression of spiritual and carnal longing. One can listen to it without feeling like a voyeur, but just barely.

The Daedalus Quartet, a youngish New York ensemble (now in its ninth season), opened the 2008-09 season of Virginia Commonwealth University Rennolds Chamber Concerts with a program centered on the Janáček. The foursome – violinists (and siblings) Kyo-Young Kim and Min-Young Kim, violist Jessica Thompson and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan – delivered a torrid, fiercely concentrated reading of “Intimate Letters” in which high-romantic melodies and Moravian folk-dance rhythms were woven with rarified sound effects and crashing tone clusters without loss of coherence or continuity, in a stream of hyper-consciousness.

Such a memorable performance of such a singularly jolting piece should have overshadowed the rest of the program. Remarkably, though, the Daedalus returned after intermission with an equally absorbing interpretation of Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 13.

The group played up the turbulence of the first movement (a miniature pre-echo of Mendelssohn’s "Hebrides" Overture), but made its strongest impressions in the variants of the sweetly noble song "Frage" that recur throughout the quartet. Min-Young Kim’s solo statement of the tune in the opening of the intermezzo was a model of sentiment without overstatement, and the group answered in kind in its treatment of subsequent developments of the theme.

The program opened with Haydn’s Quartet in G minor, Op. 20, No. 3. That key signature brought out some of the stormiest yet emotionally deep music produced by Haydn, Mozart and other composers of the classical period, and this quartet offers performers some depths to plumb. The Daedalus, however, skimmed along its surface, playing with elegance and transparency but without much energy or tension. It was Haydn without surprises, which isn’t really Haydn.