Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Music review: Tchaikovsky quartet ends Delray SQ season in winning style

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

By Greg Stepanich

On the verge of an eighth season that will include a new recording and a world premiere,‭ ‬the Delray String Quartet‭ ‬sounded confident,‭ ‬polished and vibrant as it finished up its seventh season Sunday afternoon in Miami.

Closing its fifth and final series of programs at St.‭ ‬Stephen‭’‬s Espicopal Church in Coconut Grove,‭ ‬where the competition from the Taste of the Grove festival next door could sometimes distantly be heard,‭ ‬the Delray gave solid,‭ ‬powerful accounts of two core repertory pieces before closing with an encore by the nation‭’‬s most recent Pulitzer Prize winner for music.

The quartet‭’‬s work this season has sometimes been variable‭; ‬intonation problems marred its reading of the Shostakovich Seventh Quartet earlier in the season,‭ ‬a marked contrast to the smoothness and beauty it brought‭ ‬on another concert‭ ‬to the Fourth Quartet of the American composer Kenneth Fuchs,‭ ‬whose Fifth Quartet is being written for the ensemble.

The group also has concertized‭ ‬in an increased number of venues this year,‭ ‬with appearances in Naples,‭ ‬Wellington and West Palm Beach to add to its regular concerts in Delray Beach,‭ ‬Fort Lauderdale and Coconut Grove.‭ ‬Second violinist Tomas Cotik,‭ ‬new to the foursome this year,‭ ‬makes‭ ‬a fine addition,‭ ‬as could clearly be heard throughout Sunday‭’‬s concert.

The first work on the program was the second of Robert Schumann‭’‬s three quartets‭ (‬in F,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬41,‭ ‬No.‭ ‬2‭)‬,‭ ‬which got a passionate performance overall without losing track of its classic outlines.‭ ‬That was particularly true of the first movement,‭ ‬which had good ensemble,‭ ‬a nice tempo,‭ ‬and strong playing from each of the‭ ‬musicians,‭ ‬all the while remaining right in line with the‭ ‬sturdy optimism of the movement.

The second movement,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬had plenty of emotion and color as it made its way through the mood shifts of the variations.‭ ‬The‭ ‬Molto piu lento‭ ‬section was especially affecting,‭ ‬but the main theme could have used a touch more swing,‭ ‬a little more drive‭; ‬still,‭ ‬the group produced a very pretty sound in the most heartfelt passages.‭

The Scherzo‭ ‬had a nicely aggressive feel to it because of the way the three players providing the harmony under first violinist Mei-Mei Luo‭ ‬– Cotik,‭ ‬violist Richard Fleischman and cellist Claudio Jaffé‭ ‬– punched their offbeats.‭ ‬The trio was a bit stiff,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬and needed a slightly speedier tempo and a sharper feeling of playfulness to make a more effective contrast.

In the finale,‭ ‬the quartet built up a big head of steam in the‭ ‬cello-led transition section back to the recap,‭ ‬and‭ ‬ended the work in exuberant fashion.‭

Even better was the piece on the second half of the concert,‭ ‬the Tchaikovsky Second Quartet‭ (‬in F,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬22‭)‬,‭ ‬a more expansive work than the Schumann and one‭ ‬whose full-on Romantic style seems to suit this quartet admirably.‭

This rendition of the Tchaikovsky‭ ‬appeared to have been thoroughly practiced,‭ ‬with Luo‭’‬s quasi-cadenza in the opening pages clearly‭ ‬and precisely played.‭ ‬Here,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬the quartet let all the stops out in the full-bore sections,‭ ‬with highly exciting results,‭ ‬and a logical outgrowth of the pointed,‭ ‬communicative way the primary material was played.‭

The time-switching Scherzo second movement‭ ‬had a gentle lilt and tight unity from the foursome,‭ ‬and a‭ ‬spunky trio in which Luo and Cotik traded primacy in‭ ‬the‭ ‬theme with a good equivalence of approach.‭ ‬The slow movement had lovely work from Jaffé in particular in bringing out the theme‭ (‬with its echoes of‭ ‬None but the Lonely Heart‭)‬,‭ ‬and once again ensemble was critical in coming successfully out of the explosive middle section into a restoration of the opening‭’‬s melancholy restraint.

The resonance of the St.‭ ‬Stephen‭’‬s acoustic helped the quartet sound massive in Tchaikovsky‭’‬s biggest moments,‭ ‬and so by the end of the finale,‭ ‬a sense of‭ ‬joy and athleticism was present in every measure,‭ ‬as the quartet rode Tchaikovsky‭’‬s galloping rhythms to a warmly applauded conclusion from the small but enthusiastic house of about‭ ‬40‭ ‬people.

The Delray finished off with a delightful encore:‭ ‬A‭ ‬Horseherd‭’‬s Mountain Song,‭ ‬from a collection of Chinese folksong arrangements by Zhou Long,‭ ‬a Beijing-born composer now teaching in Kansas City‭ ‬who won the Pulitzer for music on Monday for his opera ‬Madame White Snake.‭ ‬Zhou presents the folktune in engaging,‭ ‬straightforward style,‭ ‬punctuated by shouts from the players,‭ ‬and it was performed ‬– and barked‭ ‬– with gusto.

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