Keller Quartet cuts to the soul of Beethoven at Mandel Hall

Sun Apr 14, 2013 at 10:13 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Keller Quartet performed music of Beethoven, Brahms and Schnittke Friday night at Mandel Hall. Photo: Andrea Felvegi

It was one of those moments that are as rare as they are unexpected.

After a worthy but by no means extraordinary first half Friday night at Mandel Hall, the Keller Quartet began the slow movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, Op.132, and what came before and after receded into the distance. The four musicians assayed Beethoven’s hymn of benediction, written after the composer’s recovery from a serious illness, with a concentration and natural simple eloquence that seemed to draw forth the music from another realm. The seamless turns into little respites of Rococo waltz rhythms made the return to elevated introspection even more mesmerizing.

The Hungarian ensemble was not the originally scheduled group at Friday’s University of Chicago Presents event, and was subbing for the Pavel Haas Quartet, which bowed out of its tour due to a member’s pregnancy.

Formed in 1987, the Keller Quartet made a strong impact with its ECM recordings beginning in the 1990s, followed with much touring and many international appearances including at least one previous stand in Chicago. The group has changed its second violinist and cellist since its founding, and, in recent years, has been less of a presence stateside and seems to have concentrated its concertizing largely in Europe.

The group has a Central European profile with an astringency to their corporate tone, less warm and burnished than German ensembles. The opener, Brahms’ String Quartet No. 2, received an admirable reading, played with solid commitment, though at times it sounded a bit surfacey and underrehearsed, and one wished the musicians would lean into the lyricism of this work a bit more.

Give the Keller members (violinists Andras Keller and Zsofia Kornyei, violist Zoltan Gal and cellist Judit Szabo) credit for stepping into the previously slated String Quartet No. 3 of Alfred Schnittke, not a piece many groups have at their fingertips.

Schnittke wrote his Third Quartet in 1983. The Russian composer’s jokester elements are present yet here overshadowed by even more unsettled turbulence than usual as well as his vaunted deconstructionist tendencies. The theme of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Shostakovich’s DSCH motif, and even a phrase from the Stabat Mater of di Lassus all make appearances, the last lending a kind of intermittent religious quality in its fitful reprises.

Groups like the Kronos Quartet have brought more knife-like intensity to this score, but the Keller musicians served Schnittle in worthy fashion. The edge on Andras Keller’s violin tone suited this music well, and the players dug into the explosive Agitato with great force, finding a hard-won valedictory expression in the closing movement amid the vehement, dragging chords and bullet-shot pizzicatos.

Beethoven’s penultimate string quartet, Op. 132, was the clear high point of the evening. The four short movements were assayed with great skill, the opening movement deftly charted from easy-going canter to increasingly dramatic expression.

The Keller Quartet’s approach to Beethoven is similar to that of their semi-compatriots in the Takacs Quartet, leaner and more tensile than rich-toned or burnished. They conveyed the off-kilter charm of the dance-like second movement, brought us back down to earth in the bumptious, Haydenesque fourth section, and put across the brief finale with all due energetic drive.

But it was the depth of feeling in the Adagio that will resound in the memory, the Keller Quartet’s Beethoven playing idiomatic, profound and unforgettable. An encore of the third movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet (Op. 135) was rendered on the same sterling level.

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