Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Sts. Simon and Jude Church
November 23

The ensemble serves their music straight-up and dry.

It was a surprise to page through the program after last night’s Leipziger Streichquartett concert and read about the group’s many accomplishments: tours around the world, a standing series at the Gewandhaus, nearly 70 recordings and a basketful of awards. That didn’t seem to describe the ensemble we had just heard. Igor echoed what we were both thinking when he shrugged as we were putting on our coats and said, “Average.”

What accounts for the discrepancy? Maybe the boys just had an off-night; after all, nobody nails a five-star performance every time out, no matter how good they are. Or perhaps we lack the discerning ears of good critics. What seems more likely is that we’ve been spoiled by the surfeit of good string quartets in Prague. There are half a dozen that could go out and play on any stage in the world tomorrow, and win new converts to the Czech repertoire. Prague’s reputation as the conservatory of Europe is not an idle boast.

The program was straight from the Leipzig foursome’s home turf: Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s String Quartet in E minor (Op. 44, no. 2), Schumann’s String Quartet in A major (Op. 41, no. 3) and an Adagio from contemporary German pianist and composer Aribert Reimann. They should own that music, or at least offer definitive versions of it.

Instead, the performance stayed comfortably in a mid-zone, not reaching for any highs or lows. It was technically proficient but bloodless, high-caliber playing strangely absent of emotion. Perhaps this is how they prefer their music in Leipzig – dry, in both sound and temperament.

The Mendelssohn Bartholdy piece offers a lot of sweet, even playful moments, which the group didn’t take advantage of until the final movement, when they worked some of the delicate edges of the music very skillfully. There was more expression in the Schumann piece, though again, not until late, with some emotional notes in the third movement and brisk energy in the polka rhythms of the fourth. But the dramatic, passionate passages of the earlier movements never really came to life.

The group’s expertise in modern music was clear in the Reimann piece, a tribute to Schumann that was not very popular with the audience, but provided the best performance of the evening. It’s an angst-ridden work that starts with a pizzicato attack from the violins and escalates into a series of slashing, slicing phrases that burst and break, then finally taper off into soft layers of high-pitched whistles. The execution was dead-on and the bowing was strikingly good.

What the Leipzig quartet does best is create an organic sound, music that is more than the sum of four people playing together. At its best, it is an independent entity, especially when coupled with the group’s fine feel for tempo, which lends many passages a graceful momentum that literally takes the listener for a ride. If only that ride were more exciting – or had been last night.

It would be interesting to hear the Leipzig quartet do a full program of modern music. The audience would be smaller, but the guess here is that the results would be a lot more satisfying. For now, their Prague appearance served mainly as a reminder of what we have at home – which is easy to take for granted, but is truly something special.

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