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The American String Quartet at Music Mountain

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Jul 8th, 2019

From left: Wolfram Koes­sel, Daniel Av­sha­lo­mov, Peter Winograd, Laurie Carney, Oskar Espina Ruiz 

With the weather gods doubling down on clear, cool, summer perfection without a hint of humidity on Music Mountain, The American String Quarter, now in its 45th year, opened with String Quartet # 7 in F-sharp minor, Op. 108 by Dmitri Shostakovich. I was excited not merely because of the aerial intoxication of the ethereal air, but because I can’t get enough of Shostakovich’s chamber music, which not the common American response to his persistent use of dissonance. After all, didn’t Shostakovich judge the work of Messiaen to be saccharine? And was not he the man who disdained formula, admired Benjamin Britten, and strove for immediacy with the average listener?

Violist Daniel Avshalomov prefaced their performance with the announcement that they were playing the Quartet in in F-sharp rather than E-major which may have been Shostakovich’s first intention. Shostakovich had chosen the latter key to emphasize painful desolation as Mahler did in his Tenth Symphony. Shostakovich was still lonely after the death of his wife Nina five years earlier to colon cancer. The quartet is dedicated to her memory, although the manuscript has been lost. Shostakovich himself was still suffering from a right-hand injury in early 1960 when this piece was written. During rehearsals in early May Shostakovich informed a friend his intention to compose twenty-four string quartets, one in each major and minor key; he did compose fifteen quartets and his Eighth Quartet, composed in three days, remains one of my favorite quartets; it was performed last year at Music Mountain by the Cassatt String Quartet and you can read my review of that performance here.

In the Seventh, obsessive repetition becomes a desolate metaphor for wandering memories of affectionate recollection. There is both intimacy and angular dissonant angst, as well as elegiac nostalgia. First violinist Peter Winograd, son of former Hartford Symphony Orchestra Director, and Daniel Avshalomov captured some of this pathos, yet they did not delve as deep as The Emerson Quartet’s recording. There could have been more hair-raising suspense, haunting absurdity, more of a desperate edge to their melancholy inflection. This is perhaps Shostakovich’s most personal quartet and while my skin was entertained, my bones were not shaken, although there were cherished moments where one felt one did not know where all this was going, as in the strange waltz melody that followed a furious, triple-meter fugue. Winograd was eloquent with a three-note refrain that seemed to ask the question: “is that true?” The quartet nailed the rather abrupt conclusion.

Johannes Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115 (1891) remains a perennial concert favorite, this being its sixteenth performance at Music Mountain. Its invitational opening with strings to set up the entrance of the clarinet is simply delicious. Guest clarinetist Oskar Espina Ruiz entered with a warm melodic glow, his forte in the lower register. This quintet invites the listener to loll in sonority as if visiting Homer’s Land of the Lotus Eaters for white-haired ladies and gentlemen reflecting with nostalgia on their life’s pilgrimage. Oskar’s clarinet rose with poignant song against the background of tremolo strings in the gypsy ambiance of the dreamy second movement Adagio where, as in the concluding fourth movement, the quintet excelled. The spell of autumnal melancholy brimmed with Proustian redolence. In that last Allegro movement Wolfram Koessel’s seductive cello lead the instruments into conversational dialogue as if five older friends had gathered to discuss their lives and memories while the clarinet acted as their friendly conscience. The enthusiastic applause of the audience did little to dissipate their rapture.  

After a break under breathtaking blue skies, Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in C major, Op. 59 #3 was played. This is the last of the three quartets commissioned by Count Andrea Razumousky.  All three of these quartets are inspired by Russian folkloric melodies. (I have a new theory about the first of these three quartets.)

The third quartet of this series opens with an air of profound, static mystery, but soon gives way to lively, yet slow, exploration where Winograd’s violin led the other strings. The second movement Adagio mainly casts aside introspection, yet Koessel’s cello continually plucked as if to remind the other strings that an individual voice still exists within the larger social framework. Carney’s violin was vital to the third movement Menuetto, as was Avshalomov’s viola in the companion Grazioso. In the bracing Finale the American String Quartet performed with an intense, vibrant unity which sounded transcendent. There’s a larger-than-life optimism that concludes the work and exuberance was articulated into the palpable excitement of a memorable performance.  

Next Sunday Music Mountain’s Gordon Hall features the Penderecki String Quartet with Stewart Goodyear, Piano. HAYDN: String Quartet in D Major, Op. 76 #5 (1796–97); MENDELSSOHN: String Quartet in E Flat Major, Op. 12 (1829); BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 (1864).