Spokane String Quartet Tuesday, Dec. 5, The Met
The Spokane String Quartet played a polished performance Tuesday night at The Met. Included on its program were three heavyweights: Mozart, Dvorak and Bartok.
Audiences can count on the SSQ to eschew the lightweights in their concerts. They do not program merely warhorses or fluff. Along with the simple and pretty Mozart, they always throw on something more challenging. In this case it was Bartok’s Quartet No. 4.
If they had skipped the Bartok, it would probably have been less work for them, and there might have been a few audience members happier for the omission. But the Spokane String Quartet seems to enjoy tackling the 20th century, and there are plenty of fans, myself included, who enjoy the challenge of taking it on aurally.
The Bartok showed the most gutsy playing of the evening, with the quartet digging deep for primal sounds. This was especially evident in the square feel of the first movement, the off-kilter Eastern European dance rhythms of the last movement, and during the pizzicato movement.
The extreme pizzicato gesture which Bartok calls for is far more than a gentle plucking of the string. It sounded more like folk instruments on a mixture of steroids and hallucinogens. The SSQ went pretty wild during this scherzo section, and I feared for the instruments, but violins, violas and cellos must not be as delicate as they look.
The only negative element for the Bartok was a high-pitched noise which permeated The Met. At first, I thought perhaps I was wacking out a la Robert Schumann, but he heard an A, whereas this was a high F. The psychiatric community was, at least for a time, cheated of a steady income when I learned at the intermission that I was not the only one who heard it.
While there is always the odd distraction which one can write off as part of a live performance, this pitch persisted throughout the concert. It was annoying all night, but was most disturbing during the Bartok because of the high-voiced chords the strings play in some quiet passages. The sound became part of the chords enough to change the nature of the music. (I was unable to discover the source of this noise.)
Chatting before the performance, first violinist Kelly Farris called Mozart’s final Quartet, K. 590, “an opera without the singers.” Mozart’s simple yet soaring ensemble writing, which gives personality to each voice, conjures the metaphor.
The active cello part, written with the cello-playing King of Prussia in mind, was nailed by John Marshall. Also rock-solid were the viola moments of Tracy Dunlop. The entire quartet played with precision and clarity, and if the performance was a bit reserved, that is a valid approach to Mozart.
Dvorak, however is not Mozart. The SSQ’s approach to Dvorak’s Op. 77 Quintet was reserved to the point of being shy. Joined by bassist Roma Vayspapir, the quartet played with absolute accuracy, impeccable intonation and tempos that were right in the groove. At moments, though, I longed for some of the gutsy energy from the Bartok to seep in.
Dvorak’s quartets are already symphonic in structure and sound, so in the Quintet with the added richness and grounding of the sound that the double bass offers, the group is nearly an orchestra. Throw in a couple of winds and brass - the musical moments suggest it themselves - and you have a symphony.
Dvorak’s symphonic writing style and earthy melodic gift long for more sonic depth. The whole orchestra would offer a more powerful sound but at the sacrifice of the clarity which the chamber ensemble does so well. Maybe it’s just plain greedy to expect the best of both worlds.
Tuesday’s concert reinforced the postulation that one can always count on the Spokane String Quartet for programming fascinating works and providing a well-considered and polished performance.