Thursday, January 13, 2011

Music review: Splendid Shostakovich as Enso Quartet plays Flagler

The Enso String Quartet: Richard Belcher, Melissa Reardon,
John Marcus and Maureen Nelson.



By Greg Stepanich

One of the joys of seeing small concerts that are part of‭ ‬a‭ ‬good music series is that you get to hear not just the venerable players but the rising stars.

Surely Tuesday night‭’‬s performance‭ ‬at Palm Beach‭’‬s Flagler Museum‭ ‬by the Enso String Quartet was a case of seeing a young ensemble on the cusp of something really big,‭ ‬and its performance justified the wisdom of Grammy‭ ‬representatives who nominated the group‭’‬s work last year for honors.

The Enso,‭ ‬founded in‭ ‬1999‭ ‬by a group of Yale‭ ‬students,‭ ‬opened the season‭’‬s series of concerts at‭ ‬the Flagler‭ ‬with a performance that was as polished,‭ ‬exciting,‭ ‬and definitive‭ ‬as it could have hoped to be,‭ ‬and‭ ‬suggested‭ ‬that the quartet‭’‬s‭ ‬ability to present music of three completely different idioms so persuasively puts it in the running for the mantle of Quartet of the Future.‭

Violinists Maureen Nelson and John‭ ‬Marcus,‭ ‬violist Melissa Reardon and cellist Richard Belcher showed from the very‭ ‬opening‭ ‬bars of the second‭ ‬Razumovsky Quartet of Beethoven‭ (‬No.‭ ‬8‭ ‬in E‭ ‬minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬59,‭ ‬No.‭ ‬2‭) ‬the kind of unity and multiplicity that make for exceptional quartet playing.‭ ‬The chords and the first motif cadences were precise and exactly in line,‭ ‬and at the same‭ ‬time they had a special color in which the distinctive sounds of each player could clearly be heard.

The opening movement also demonstrated the Enso‭’‬s‭ ‬command of dynamics,‭ ‬and not just the difference between a whisper and a shout.‭ ‬In the group syncopation passages,‭ ‬the quartet built firmly and‭ ‬as one into the releases,‭ ‬which they didn‭’‬t hammer or overemphasize‭; ‬this is a‭ ‬group‭ ‬that knows the‭ ‬difference‭ ‬between‭ ‬mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte,‭ ‬forte and fortissimo,‭ ‬and observes them.‭

In the lovely second movement,‭ ‬first violinist Nelson played her operatic scale passages beautifully in tune as they floated into the‭ ‬highest reaches of the E string above the quiet chords of her partners,‭ ‬and in the third,‭ ‬the Enso‭’‬s‭ ‬scrupulous‭ ‬attention to louds and softs,‭ ‬plus the tightness of its ensemble,‭ ‬brought out the opening section‭’‬s mystery and shock in ideal fashion.

The‭ ‬Ensos chose a good,‭ ‬snappy tempo for the finale,‭ ‬and peeled off the three-note motifs that are‭ ‬a significant dramatic element in the movement with machine-like accuracy,‭ ‬but‭ ‬without‭ ‬sounding rigid‭ ‬or in fear‭ ‬of losing the pulse.‭ ‬This was a stellar‭ ‬performance‭ ‬of this‭ ‬great piece,‭ ‬one that showed off Beethoven‭’‬s expansive view of the string quartet medium to excellent effect.

Following the Beethoven was a classic of a very different sort:‭ ‬The‭ ‬Six Bagatelles‭ ‬(Op.‭ ‬9‭)‬,‭ ‬written in‭ ‬1913‭ ‬by Anton Webern.‭ ‬These are extraordinary works,‭ ‬tiny and full of atmosphere,‭ ‬sounding as though the world of music had stepped back to retune and reexamine all of its tonal assumptions.

The Enso‭’‬s precision and fidelity to‭ ‬dynamic‭ ‬detail,‭ ‬so laudable in the Beethoven,‭ ‬was‭ ‬absolutely‭ ‬paramount here,‭ ‬and its devotion to the explicitness of Webern‭’‬s directions allowed‭ ‬the music to evanesce.‭ ‬There was a palpable sense of tension,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬in the fifth bagatelle,‭ ‬which focused the ear admirably on the‭ ‬flecks of color the composer took‭ ‬such‭ ‬pains to paint.‭

Best of all was the final work on the program,‭ ‬the Quartet No.‭ ‬2‭ (‬in A,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬68‭) ‬of Dmitri Shostakovich.‭ ‬This was the finest reading of the piece that I have ever heard,‭ ‬a magnificent realization of the score‭ ‬and terrifically exciting music-making to boot.‭ ‬It was standout Shostakovich that perfectly embodied his style,‭ ‬and made an unimpeachable case for it as an essential part of the canon.

The opening movement‭ ‬(Overture‭) ‬had all the folk-flavored zest and power‭ ‬the‭ ‬Enso could bring to it,‭ ‬and it worked marvelously.‭ ‬From the big-bowed‭ ‬opening chords to the climbing five-note motif that runs throughout the piece,‭ ‬it had an irresistible‭ ‬crackling‭ ‬force‭ ‬that radiated optimism‭ ‬and energy.

Nelson‭’‬s playing of the elaborate second-movement recitatives was splendid,‭ ‬with big,‭ ‬rich tone and maximum‭ ‬expressivity,‭ ‬even without much‭ ‬of the Russian-school style of emotive vibrato.‭ ‬The motif that serves as the unifier of the second section was introduced with gratifying gentleness,‭ ‬further evidence of the care this group lavishes on detail.

Cellist Belcher‭’‬s‭ ‬account of the third-movement waltz theme was‭ ‬lovely,‭ ‬full of dark color and sensitivity,‭ ‬and the half-light in which Marcus and Reardon continued the afterbeats was deeply effective and well-suited for Shostakovich‭’‬s‭ ‬gloomy death-dance.‭ ‬The finale‭’‬s‭ ‬opening‭ ‬unison passage had the same forceful‭ ‬breadth‭ ‬of the first movement,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the variations that followed‭ ‬– beginning‭ ‬with‭ ‬hauntingly beautiful playing by Reardon‭ ‬--‭ ‬showcased an ensemble‭ ‬that was able to‭ ‬handle the‭ ‬varied demands of the music and not lose sight of its narrative.

Maybe the most‭ ‬gratifying‭ ‬thing about this Shostakovich was the sheer‭ ‬feeling of life and vigor the Enso brought to it without shortchanging its profound melancholy.‭ ‬This was a Shostakovich that was‭ ‬sorrowing‭ ‬at times‭ ‬but not inert,‭ ‬and its‭ ‬overall‭ ‬effectiveness was‭ ‬increased‭ ‬by the group‭’‬s full embrace of the composer‭’‬s Russian roots music.

‭***

The Ying Quartet appears next on‭ ‬the Flagler Museum series with the Quartet No.‭ ‬2‭ (‬in A minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬35a‭) ‬of Anton Arensky,‭ ‬and the Quartet No.‭ ‬13‭ (‬in B-flat,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬130‭) ‬of Beethoven,‭ ‬with the‭ ‬original‭ ‬Grosse Fuge movement‭ ‬as its finale.‭ ‬The concert is set for‭ ‬7:30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Tuesday,‭ ‬Jan.‭ ‬25.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$60.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬655-2833‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬www.flaglermuseum.us.

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