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Unity of Purpose

by B.A. Nilsson on November 22, 2011

Jupiter Quartet
Union College Memorial Chapel, Nov. 20

A decade of musical togetherness has given the Jupiter String Quartet a voice unified in its tone and philosophy but still able to reveal the distinctive qualities of its elements. You don’t want a close-harmony ensemble’s components to sound the same—you want to craft a sound made all the richer by contrasting timbres.

Cellist Denise Djokic joined the group for the big piece on Sunday’s program: Schubert’s Quintet in C Major, a work written for the unusual line-up of two violins, a viola and two cellos—two violas was the norm when Schubert wrote this, and he did so in the last weeks of his life, inspiring sentimental hagiographers to declare that his death is knowingly foreshadowed within the work.

The less abstractly we view a piece of music, the less intimidating it seems. And this is one hell of an intimidating piece of music. Having absorbed all the precepts of form and style that characterized his era, Schubert wandered into places that would seem just plain wrong, or at least baffling, were it not for his relentless melodic invention. As more and more of his late-era works (many of which he never heard performed) were discovered, critics fell over themselves noting how poorly he put the pieces together, their judgments eventually steamrollered into oblivion as the popularity of each of those pieces soared.

This quintet relishes the individual voices of its performing ensemble. At times, each of the members seems to be in a unique world, like a bunch of kids on playground. One is playing chords, one is plucking, another spins out a melodic line, another adds a sinuous harmony. At times—particularly in the ethereal outer-end sections of the second movement—a trio of violin, viola and cello works in concert as the remaining violin and cello exchange ideas.

Everything about this piece seems to grow from the slow opening chords of its introduction. A rambunctious first theme dances over the same progression, then focuses into a single note that splits into two lyrical voices singing one of the most beautiful and haunting melodies ever written. And it goes on from there, a work of constant surprise that culminates in an unlikely but satisfying barn dance.

A welcome tendency among younger chamber ensembles is more brashness than their predecessors. Dynamic contrasts are more vivid and tempos often are satisfyingly faster. And there’s a more sparing use of interpretive devices—the pauses and note-stretching that says, “Here’s our way of doing it.” The Jupiter Quartet-Plus-One tackled the Schubert in such a manner, and although those pauses did appear, they were few and, I have to concede, tastefully done.

Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 3 is a piece that by no means reveals all—or even many—of its mysteries on a first hearing. It’s a brief, tight little number so thickly crowded with technical goodies that only informed score study will help parse everything. Still, it packs an emotional wallop in its 15-or-so minutes, its spare motivic elements building, with the help of the composer’s characteristic sense of Hungarian folk melody, into a painful but cathartic finish.

Making it a huge challenge to the players. The Jupiter Quartet showed a fiery sense of unity, no doubt the result of careful burnishing of the work’s elements, but without sacrificing the spontaneity that makes a good performance great.

There’s a sense of melancholy behind the Bartók work, picking up from the finish of the program opener: Beethoven’s Quartet No. 6, the last movement of which was marked, by the composer, “La Malonconia,” and precedes the bumptious main melody with a sad and thoughtful meditation that shows up again, unexpectedly, mid-movement.

As with the Schubert quintet, there’s more here than at first meets the ear, with a unifying continuity among the movements buried under the expected contrasts. Once again, the performers dispatched the piece with virtuosic assuredness, letting the power of the music speak for itself, unclouded by extraneous interpretive devices.