Sunday, November 6, 2011

Review: Fry Street Quartet

with Robert McDonald, piano
Nov. 5, Virginia Commonwealth University

A string quartet without its usual first violinist is not its usual self – not nearly so in the large body of quartet literature in which the ensemble takes its expressive cues from and plays off the melodies of the first fiddle.

That may account for the thin and uneven collective sound and expressive caution of the Fry Street Quartet when the group arrived for a Rennolds Chamber Concerts date at VCU with a guest first violinist, Felicia Moye, joining three of its regulars, second violinist Rebecca McFaul, violist Bradley Ottesen and cellist Anne Francis.

The ensemble sounded best in Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 7, whose string parts are sharply etched and tonally stark and whose accents and dynamics are fairly straightforward. The four string players made a strong impression in the piece, especially cellist Francis and violist Ottesen in the somber melody of the central slow movement.

The group, joined by pianist Robert McDonald, played Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, at such a measured pace that the work’s volatile and vehement elements came across with little more than thumping emphasis and its andante’s bittersweet lyricism sounded merely sweet. McDonald reined in piano sound to not overpower the strings and brought out some usually obscured inner lines of the piano part; but that’s about all this account had going for it.

The string players were a bit more expressively engaged in Beethoven’s Quartet in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4. Cellist Francis, as she had in the Brahms, seemed to be striving to ignite the proceedings with sharp accenting and robust bass lines; and the group warmed to the work as it went along, playing the concluding menuetto and allegro with animation and fire.