Friday, February 26, 2010

Review: Biava Quartet

Feb. 26, Ellen Glasgow House, Richmond

In this new age of "alt-classical," chamber ensembles perform in all kinds of chambers, from recital halls to warehouses. Gigs in the parlors of 19th-century houses are pretty exceptional, though. (Pretty ironic, that, since most chamber music composed before 1900 was written with at-home performance in mind.)

So it wasn’t too surprising that the Biava Quartet, which has the chops and the burgeoning reputation to play in major concert halls, took some time adjusting its projection and instrumental blending to the relative intimacy of Richmond’s Ellen Glasgow House.

The foursome – violinists Austin Hartman and Hyunsu Ko, violist Mary Persin and cellist Gwendolyn Krosnick – brought to town by James Wilson’s Richmond Festival of Music, took its audience deep into the sonic and structural innards of music by Haydn, Brahms and Ginastera. Even in the seats most distant from the musicians (maybe 12 feet away) and under the rooms’ 14-foot ceilings, the immediacy and impact of the performances were striking, not to say stunning – almost as if one were listening from inside the instruments.

Don’t try this at home unless first-rate artists are at work. Even then, make allowances: Proximity amplifies imperfections, italicizes contrasts of volume and sound texture, and tends to etch the sound of each instrument in sharp relief.

That was just right for Ginastera’s Quartet No. 1 (1948), an eventful, sometimes violently expressive work that draws on the folk idioms of the composer’s homeland, Argentina, and also recalls the tone-colorization of the French impressionist school. The Biava played with great intensity in the sharply accented, highly dynamic writing of its outer movements, and with even more impressive subtlety in the voicings and textures of its inner scherzo and nocturne.

The group’s expressive intensity, and relatively brisk tempos, made for a cogent and memorably dramatic reading of Brahms’ Quartet in C minor, Op. 51. In the two final movements of this last piece on the program, the musicians sounded to have fully adjusted to the space in which they were playing, and so were able to produce an optimal instrumental blend.

The loudness and occasional unruliness of Haydn’s Quartet in F minor, Op. 20, No. 5, which opened the program, showed how tough it can be to adjust high-powered string playing to a domestic scale.

The Biava dedicated the performance to David Soyer, the longtime cellist of the Guarneri Quartet, who died on Feb. 25 at the age of 87.