Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Music review: Delray Quartet's Mendelssohn underwhelming

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847).

By Greg Stepanich

DELRAY BEACH -- In this bicentenary year of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn, no fewer than three string quartet ensembles have played the composer's final, anguished quartet in local concerts.

The Delray String Quartet closed its fifth season Sunday afternoon with a somewhat limp reading of the Mendelssohn Sixth Quartet (in F minor, Op. 80), in which the foursome was hard-pressed to get across the fury of the work, which was written after the death of the composer's beloved sister. Unusually for Mendelssohn, this work has an almost constant drive in its three fast movements, and it takes a good deal of focus and energy to do that justice.

But the Delray -- with Italian violinist Claudia Cagnassone guesting at second in place of her absent beau, Laszlo Pap -- simply sounded underrehearsed. While things got off to a good start in the opening bars of the first movement, the tempo slowed down for the second theme, and the movement lost all its energy. The music's quieter here and moves in longer units, but there still has to be the hot breath of a pursuer at the quartet's neck to keep the piece moving.

Similarly in the second movement, what started out with force and power in the offbeats between the first violin (Mei-Mei Luo) and the rest of the quartet degenerated into flaccidity in the middle section; the viola (Richard Fleischman) and cello's (Susan Moyer Bergeron) mini-passacaglia is about rhythmic tension -- it's not supposed to lead into an indistinct, dreamy contrast with the first theme.

Things were better in the slow third movement, though Luo's playing of the tender main theme was a little thin. But the quartet sounded more at home here, and the tempestuous outburst toward the end was reasonably well-managed. In the finale, the forward motion of the music was captured more successfully, and by the very end the group was gelling as an ensemble; still, the overall impression was of a quartet that didn't get enough time to rehearse this seminal work.

The second half of the concert, after the Mendelssohn, consisted entirely of arrangements, beginning with Jeremy Nurse's adaptation of one of the violin concerti from Vivaldi's L'Estro Armonico (Op. 3, No. 6 in A minor). Nurse has done a very good job of making this music work without the hum and support of the continuo, and the Delray players did well in adapting to their exposed lines. Best of all was the playing of Moyer Bergeron in the second movement, with a lovely reading of its beautiful, melancholy melody.

The quartet had scheduled two of the movements from Astor Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, but those were canceled and replaced with a Carlo Martelli arrangement of the well-known La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl With the Flaxen Hair), from the first book of Claude Debussy's Preludes for solo piano. This is a straightforward, elegant little piece with gently shifting harmonies under its pentatonic tune, and the quartet played it with warmth and restraint. The surprise key change in the prelude was not well-judged, though, and the effect of the fresh tonality, which opens up the music to new horizons, was lost.

The final work was an arrangement of the Emperor Waltz (Op. 437) of Johann Strauss II, one of the Waltz King's finer pieces. The audience loved this selection, and the Delray played it with the requisite Gemutlichkeit and high spirits (it was particularly fun to see Moyer Bergeron having to double for the absent tympani with a furious C-string tremolo at the end ).

The Delray String Quartet has had a big year, and the sixth season will mark a real turning point for this group as it adds an entire series of Saturday night concerts at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale. Although Sunday's concert was far from their best, they remain worth following, and audiences can confidently expect important work from them in the near future.

Details about the upcoming season of the Delray String Quartet can be found here, in the third item.

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