Sunday, May 4, 2014

Review: American String Quartet

with Roberto Díaz, viola
and Andrés Díaz, cello
May 3, Virginia Commonwealth University

Performances of string sextets are pretty rare outside major cultural centers and music festivals, so the visit by the American String Quartet – violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, violist Daniel Avshalomov and cellist Wolfram Koessel – joined by violist Roberto Díaz and cellist Andrés Díaz, concluding this season’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts series at Virginia Commonwealth University, was keenly anticipated.

For the most part, the six fiddlers’ program lived up to expectations. Their robust, high-relief sound filled the space of VCU’s 500-seat Vlahcevic Concert Hall, and their sharply defined, rhetorically dramatic interpretations were stirring enough to provoke spontaneous verbal reactions from listeners (for example, the “whoo!” emanating from the balcony after the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence”).

Energy often trumped refinement, predictably in the Tchaikovsky, a work of headlong expressiveness, sprawling structure and not fully integrated voicings that sounds far more Russian than Florentine (“Souvenir de Novosibirsk” would be a more accurate title, especially for the last two movements) and more orchestral than chamber in scale.

The clean, singing tones of the violinist Winograd, seconded by cellist Koessel, in the slow movement, and the sharply accented, idiomatically Russian tones of the full ensemble in the scherzo, highlighted the Tchaikovsky.

The program’s other full-length offering, Brahms’ Sextet in G major, Op. 36, also received big, verging on orchestral, treatment from the six musicians. The piece can take it – it has, in fact, been arranged for full orchestra – and its unusually (for Brahms) sunny, outgoing expressiveness and brightly colored tonal palette nudge interpreters away from the conventional rich, bronzed Brahms sonority.

The ensemble avoided the most common pitfalls of Brahms performance, playing too slowly (allegro non troppo means “fast, but not too fast,” not “fast, but not really”) and with overly thick sound textures, and produced useful contrasts of bright and dusky tonality – enriching collective string sound, for example, as the adagio movement progressed.

The program opened with the string sextet that opens Richard Strauss’ opera “Capriccio,” a masterful condensation of the composer’s yearning, nostalgic brand of late romanticism and his most effective piece of chamber music. The six musicians, paced by violinist Winograd, produced a clean, bright sound that neither over- nor underplayed the expression and spirit of the piece.