Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review: Miró Quartet

May 6, Virginia Commonwealth University

The finest string quartet I’ve heard in years played the most challenging of Beethoven’s quartets with near-perfect technique and extraordinary intensity in the season finale of VCU’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts.

The Miró Quartet – violinists Daniel Ching and William Fedkenheuer, violist John Largess and cellist Joshua Gindele – played Beethoven’s Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131, with a degree of concentration and expressive force that a listener would be lucky to experience once in a lifetime. This was the fifth time I’ve heard the piece performed live; none of the other four came remotely close to this.

What was so special about it?

Technically, the four musicians produced a faultless balance of distinct but thoroughly complementary voices – essential in a work often driven by interplay among solo instruments.

This balance was achieved in part by a nowadays-unconventional placement of instruments: violinists facing each other in front, with the cellist behind the first violin and the violist behind the second violin. This clarified Beethoven’s exchanges between violins, and also gave unusual weight to the full ensemble, as the cello and viola were projecting toward the audience rather than toward the violins, as they would in the usual seating of a string quartet.

It sounded as if the musicians were playing a matched set of instruments. They weren’t, but they were playing with matched ears regarding tone production – rich but not plush, tightly focused in pitch, rather woodsy even at the most brilliant – that proved ideal for the Beethoven, music of epic conception, highly complex construction and, ideally, a measure of sonic grit. (That grit is what eludes most ensembles in the late Beethoven quartets.)

Interpretively, the Miró grasped the complexities and their context in the narrative of this music. Op. 131 is in seven movements, played straight through, with a couple of pregnant pauses; it should sound and feel like an outpouring of overlapping ideas striving toward a single emphatic end. That’s how it came across in this extraordinary performance.

The program’s opening selection, Haydn’s Quartet in D major, Op. 20, No. 4, was an excellent prelude to the Beethoven. Haydn, who invented the classical string quartet, normally produced elegantly tuneful, carefully formatted constructs, not without the quirky touches that enliven his symphonies but with more subtle or tightly controlled quirks.

This early(ish) quartet, from a set of six written in 1772, departs from Haydn’s usual format, most famously in the Hungarian dance that takes the place of the usual third-movement minuet, but more notably in an adagio that sends a minor-key theme through a sequence of elaborations, each led by a single instrument that one-ups its predecessor in expressive intensity. The cumulative effect of this movement pre-echoes what Beethoven made of the somber tune that haunts Op. 131.

The Miró’s treatment of that adagio nicely balanced Haydneseque style with Beethovenian portent.

As a contrasting centerpiece, the group played five of the dozen miniatures that Dvořák arranged for string quartet from “Cypresses,” an early song cycle. (Violist Largess helpfully filled in the unrequited love story behind the work in introductory remarks, and the lyrics of the five songs were printed in the program book, for those whose poetic tolerance extends to mid-19th century romantic yearning-amid-nature verse – mercifully, not necessary for appreciation of the music.)

The Miró found the right tone of voice for the naïve lyricism of the young Dvořák, leavened by the more sophisticated instrumental writing of the mature composer.