Cuarteto Casals displays individual artistry at Mandel Hall

Sat Nov 02, 2013 at 1:54 pm

By Michael Cameron

The Cuarteto Casals performed Friday night at Mandel Hall.
The Cuarteto Casals performed Friday night at Mandel Hall.

Usually when a particular artist or ensemble comes to mind, a specific characteristic sound or musical gesture pops into our aural memory as a convenient identifier. With the superb Cuarteto Casals, this is a bigger challenge, since the Spaniards have no single particular sonic trademark or default tonal fingerprint, so broad is their color pallet and so customized are their interpretations for the musical needs of the works at hand.

Case in point was their splendid concert Friday at Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago. For the opening work, Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 33, No. 3 (“The Bird”), the foursome entered clutching classical period bows, notably different from their modern counterparts by virtue of a slightly convex curve. The sonic difference of this change shouldn’t be overstated, since they still used modern instruments with steel strings.

More importantly, it was a signal that they would approach Haydn with more than a passing nod to historically informed practices. Of course this trend has been ongoing for decades, but some string players (mostly European) have more recently been grafting these concepts onto otherwise modern interpretations. Cuarteto Casals sees these developments not as way to outlaw romanticized and “vulgar” modern practices, but as an opportunity for enhancing their interpretive toolbelts.

Tempos in the Haydn were bright, their tone was lean and zippy, and each new idea was given its own singular characterization. The birdcalls were playful and agile, the simple tunes sinewy and shapely, yet none of these details seemed micromanaged or precious, and never distracted from Haydn’s broader formal concerns.

The composer notably scores the opening of the scherzo in the strings’ lower register, and the quartet underscored this enigmatic section with a luminous, airy legato. The difference in the movement’s trio was startling – crisp, nearly brittle articulations supported Haydn’s brief, chirpy theme. This may be a golden age of string quartets, but few seem to be making Haydn a central concern of their repertoire. Supremely equipped to assume this mantel, we can only hope the Madrileños’ interest persists.

It’s hard to imagine an ensemble saying anything new about Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, but the Spaniards (with “modern” bows) managed to make it sound utterly fresh without depending on gimmickry or preciousness. The opening movement of the Debussy was brisk and a bit impatient, yet allowed for certain lush chords to sink deep into the prevailing texture.

The Debussy also gave them a chance to demonstrate the alternating violin chairs for Abel Thomás and Vera Matinez. The latter sported a gleaming, rich tone, always at pains to give way for the revolving interest of each of the four lines. Most striking was the dissimilarity with their Haydn account, as if relearning their sonic blueprint to match the idiom of the French master.

Given their Iberian heritage, it’s not surprising to find them teaming up with guitarists, the superb Denis Azabagic on this occasion and Manuel Barrueco in previous appearances. Azabagic gave an enchanting performance of Alan Thomas’ solo guitar piece Out of Africa, a suite of five scenes conjuring various locales and times of day in the continent. The guitarist’s personal and sensitive reading made for a pleasant, evocative diversion.

“Diversion” is also the best word to describe Boccherini’s novelty, the Quintet in D Major for Guitar and Quartet, dubbed “Fandango”. While the three-movement confection smoothly incorporates the plucked instrument with the four bows, it was cellist Arnau Tomás who was allowed the most fun. He reveled in antics not usually associated with music of this vintage, including descending glissandos, high harmonics, and even a nifty passage with his cello displaced by castanets.

It’s worth noting that the physical setup of the foursome was also idiosyncratic, with all perched on piano benches with very low music stands, and lined up with only a slight bend, not huddled in the usual “U” shape. This seemed to give each voice a bit more autonomy and visual connection with the audience, yet didn’t compromise their uncanny unanimity.

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