and fleet: the Jupiter String Quartet.
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.