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Attacca String Quartet’s energy yields mixed results at Northwest BachFest debut

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 28, 2020

Attacca String Quartet is performing at Barrister Winery this weekend. (Courtesy)
Attacca String Quartet is performing at Barrister Winery this weekend. (Courtesy)
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

Flush with their triumph at the Grammys, where, against strong competition, their CD of Caroline Shaw’s “Orange” received the award for best recording by a chamber group or small ensemble, the Attacca String Quartet ascended the stage at Barrister Winery on Tuesday night. “Attacca” is a musical instruction to begin playing a new section in a score without pause.

True to their name, the group composed of Amy Schroeder (first violin), Domenic Salerni (second violin), Nathan Schram (viola) and Andrew Yee (cello) immediately launched into a performance of Beethoven’s first string quartet.

They are completing a traversal of the complete string quartets of Beethoven initiated last year by master impresario and artistic director Zuill Bailey as part of a yearlong celebration by Northwest BachFest of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Following the plan begun in December by the Ariel Quartet, Attacca offered two quartets by Beethoven, one from the early period of his career, Op. 18 No. 1 in F (1800), and one from the late, Op. 127 in E-flat major (1825), as well as a brief work: Gabriella Smith’s “Carrot Revolution” of 2015, included to illustrate the continuing vitality of serious writing for string quartet.

The approach we heard from the Ariel Quartet, emphasizing the individuality of the players and conveying a sense of improvisation and spontaneity, is a recent development in the tradition of quartet playing. Attacca, for all the commitment to contemporary music, takes a more traditional approach in which the four voices are tightly integrated into a symphonic whole.

The tonal character of the four players is very closely matched, as woods from different sources are blended in a veneer, and every detail of phrasing and expression is uniform throughout the group. Attacca takes full advantage of the expressive power and variety of modern instruments to convey interpretations of great emotional intensity.

This approach was essential in performing the frantic energy and bristling inventiveness of “Carrot Revolution” and in lengthy sections of Beethoven’s Op. 127. The rich tone, fierce accents and wide dynamic range employed by Attacca illuminated the sprawling, discontinuous landscape of the First and Fourth movements of Op. 127, in which Beethoven employs sudden and extreme contrasts.

In the second and third movements, however, which call for greater serenity and an element of Olympian detachment, the heated emotionality of Attacca was less effective. Their exploitation of the full resources of their instruments, suggestive of the work of later composers, seemed foreign to the sound-world of the Late Quartets.

This element of disharmony was very much more apparent in their performance of Beethoven’s First Quartet. The Attacca Quartet’s ferocious attention to hairpin dynamics and insistence on extracting the greatest possible emotion from every phrase obscured the important role played in this music by grace, wit and playfulness.

Some of these same mannerisms marred the following evening’s performance of the Quartet Op. 18 No. 2 in G major but disappeared when the Attacca Quartet confronted the pinnacle of Beethoven’s writing for string quartet, and, some would say, of his entire output: The Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor Op. 131.

From the serene, timeless dialogue that opens the work to the antic closing gallop, the group placed its enormous resources of tone and technique utterly at the service of the music, rejecting all mannerism and exaggeration.

They demonstrated the humility that comes only from complete identification with the style and aims of the composer and mastery of the work’s enormous technical demands. This is an achievement that cannot be overstated considering the lofty requirements and deep rewards of Beethoven’s last, and perhaps greatest, masterpiece.

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