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Fast and fleet: the Jupiter String Quartet.

Perfect Alignment

By B.A. Nilsson

Jupiter String Quartet

Union College Memorial Chapel, Oct. 2

Blazing in the clear southern sky over the roof of Union College’s Memorial Chapel, the planet Jupiter welcomed those who ventured out to enjoy the inaugural concert in the college’s excellent series. That bright (second-magnitude!) celestial body also was in view the evening the first- magnitude Jupiter String Quartet was formed seven years ago, hence the moniker.

A program of works by Haydn, Beethoven, Shostakovich and Gubaidulina should please anyone with even a slight interest in chamber music, yet not only was the hall unusually empty but I also witnessed a cadre of oldsters hurrying off at intermission, bound, I fear, for their TV sets and the vice-presidential debate. Too bad such things even have to compete, because we can be sure that when art goes up against dog racing, the latter always wins.

Haydn’s Quartet No. 67 in F Major was his last completed work in that form. Although it has been suggested that the composer was too cowed by Beethoven’s first essays in that form to further pursue it himself, this work shows anything but generational stodginess.

It starts, characteristically, with a bold, cheerful theme with a feeling of questioning behind it, giving some complexity. From a performance standpoint, much is hidden behind so seemingly simple a statement. Many years ago, as a member of a string quartet of aging students, I participated in a master class led by the celebrated violist Walter Trampler, and my ensemble presented the first movement of a Haydn quartet. It was the String Quartet in B-flat Major, which begins with five chords. We never got past them. Cruelly, fastidiously, Trampler shaped our fingers around those easy-seeming notes until we not only were completely harmonized in our breathing and bowing, but also were telling the same story—and those five introductory chords were as much of a dramatic element of the piece as the theme that followed.

Fast and fleet might be the motto of the Jupiter Quartet. They have the good sense to keep a piece moving even as they shape its phrases with the briefest of pauses. The expected minuet appears as the second movement in this piece, typical of Haydn in throwing the listener off with quirky rhythms. First violinist Nelson Lee and cellist Daniel McDonough had the opening of the subsequent andante to themselves, which soon added second violinist Meg Freivogel and violist Liz Freivogel to offer harmony and then join the exploration—even giving the violist a shot at that tune for a while. The soft, final chord was a textbook example of how well blended this quartet has become, and they left barely room to breath in the vivace that finished the work.

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 is Haydn-esque in its opening, but there’s a bleakness, a restlessness behind its sprightly phrases. Like many of the composer’s later chamber works, this is about conversations, the instruments in argument and agreement even as the textural landscape changes through plucked and muted passages. A classical three-movement form is thrown into disarray with the many surprises that emerge; by the time the third movement settles into mournful echoes of the first, we realize how much of a journey we’ve made—all of it beautifully articulated by the players.

McDonough asked, at the start of the concert, for no applause between the Shostakovich piece and Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No. 2. This single-movement work, written 20 years ago by a Shostakovich student, is all about texture, reducing melodic elements to long, single-tone phrases interrupted by quasi-improvisational murmurs. It was a haunting work with echoes of ligeti, ending in a long, sad exhalation. And it was another journeyman job by the ensemble.

Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8 in E-minor, second of the “Rasumovsky” set, should have been the high point of the concert, but the ensemble took the opening allegro at such a fast clip that some of its subtleties weren’t as articulate as I’d like—actually, a combination of tempo and the very reverberant hall. The next movement, marked molto adagio, brought them back to a more reasonable pace, and its hypnotic combination of a long-note theme with a dotted-note accompaniment was excellently accomplished.

By the third movement, when the Russian theme apparently assigned by dedicatee Count Rasumovsky appears, anything off-kilter was Beethoven’s doing. He mocked, in his setting, what should have been a noble tune, and the Jupiter Quartet had great fun with it. The final movement, a presto, was again blisteringly fast, but the phrases emerged more cleanly and the concert ended with an appropriately triumphant feel.

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