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A ‘Hang On To Your Hat’ Performance Spokane String Quartet Took Bartok And Brahms To New Levels

William Berry Correspondent

Spokane String Quartet Sunday, May 14, at The Met

The Spokane String Quartet performance Sunday was exciting. For those not in attendance, and for those who may not realize chamber music can do more than merely titillate, this was not a “My, darling, that was uplifting I believe I’ll have a tad more Chablis” exciting. This was a “Sit down, shut up and hang on we’re going for a ride” exciting.

The opening salvo was Bela Bartok’s String Quartet No. 5. Even with a few introductory remarks to prepare them, the audience seemed shocked by the arsenal which Bartok’s score calls for, and which the SSQ was ready to fire off. There was some shifting in the seats and a few departures between the third and fourth movements, but the remainder of the crowd hunkered down for more.

Those brave souls were rewarded. The Spokane String Quartet players sounded as strong as I have heard them, with solid ensemble work and a sparkle which is hard to achieve in the acoustically challenging Met. The first and fifth movements contain difficult unison lines, swirling canonic entrances and a propelling irregular pulse. The SSQ played all of this with energy to spare.

The wistful and wispy chords in the second movement? At the limits of softness with control.

The fourth movement’s stormy viola/cello octaves? Drama plus.

The uncountable dance pulses in the third movement? Count the SSQ in.

The nicest touch, though, was that they made all of this ear-bending music sound so natural that the simplistic lesson piece Bartok sarcastically included at the end of the work sounded truly silly and out of place.

The only other piece on the program was Brahms’ Piano Quartet, Op. 25. Now here’s a Romantic composer who could work a theme. When Brahms is finished with a theme, there is nothing left worth doing with it. The nice string of notes which opens the first movement, for instance, is developed in various harmonic colorings, rhythmic permutations, tonal shifts, accompaniment patterns, fragments and sequences.

This thorough scrubbing, wringing and hanging out to dry does not, however, come out sounding like a laundry list of compositional devices. Brahms glides through mood shifts in a way which keeps listeners blissfully unaware of the machination.

The SSQ’s guest artist for this concert, pianist Janet Goodman Guggenheim, was a real team player in the Brahms. While “accompanist” is sometimes a dirty word in the piano world, Guggenheim did the deed artfully. The ease with which she handled the demonically difficult passages did not compel her to pretentious soloistic posturing.

Hers was a clear voice in the ensemble, coaxing from the piano a plethora of warm sounds to blend with the strings. Communication and balance were impeccable, delivering a powerful performance.

In its own league was the over-theedge Gypsy fiddling finale. Exciting, darned exciting. But if you weren’t there, you just couldn’t know how exciting. Chablis was spilt.

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