Lincoln Quartet opens Winter Chamber Music Festival in mixed fashion

Sat Jan 09, 2016 at 1:22 pm

By Tim Sawyier

The Lincoln Quartet performed Friday night at the Winter Chamber Music Festival at Northwestern University in Evanston.
The Lincoln Quartet performed Friday night at the Winter Chamber Music Festival at Northwestern University in Evanston.

The Lincoln Quartet kicked off Northwestern University’s 2016 Winter Chamber Music Festival at Pick-Staiger Hall on Friday night. The ensemble of CSO musicians— violinists Lei Hou and Qing Hou, violist Lawrence Neuman, and cellist Kenneth Olsen—proficiently performed the evening’s program of repertoire staples, but overall left a mixed impression.

The performance began with Haydn’s String Quartet No. 61 in D Minor, Op. 76 No. 2, “Quinten.” The work earned its nickname from the ubiquitous descending fifths in its first movement. While the constant repetition of that interval lends the opening Allegro an obsessive quality, the architecture of the sonata form movement was lost in the Lincoln players’  monochromatic rendition. The second movement began with a delicately sung cantilena from Qing Hou (first violin for the first half), with warm pizzicato support from her colleagues, but the many returns of the opening theme were handled in a uniform fashion and her filigreed variation lacked spontaneity.

The “Quinten” Menuetto essentially divides the ensemble into pairs, with imitative writing at the octave between violins and low strings. Olsen and Neuman achieved a robust, unified sonority, but periodic intonation lapses from the Hou sisters made them sound anemic in comparison. The closing Vivace assai lacked the gypsy flair from which the music takes its cue, but was palliated by Olsen’s consistently rich and individual playing.

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3 in F Major, Op. 73 followed and fared far better, perhaps by virtue of its more obvious, intrinsic musical variety. The first movement sounded appropriately mercurial in the Lincoln Quartet’s hands. Its central contrapuntal section was played with vitality and each return of its mischievously nonchalant theme came as a genuine surprise. The ponderous rising viola figures in the Moderato con moto were imbued with heft and gravitas by Neuman, and the group demonstrated pinpoint ensemble in the movement’s desiccated staccato passages.

The aggressive central Allegro non troppo–quintessential Shostakovich–received a committed reading, with mechanistic drive and energy. The quartet’s Adagio is reminiscent of the slow movement of the composer’s Fifth Symphony, with emphatic unisons alternating with spare, harmonically ambiguous sections, all of which the Lincoln deftly brought to life. Qing Hou excelled in the closing Moderato, which was highlighted by her wistful take on its second theme and hauntingly ethereal playing to close the piece.

Brahms’ Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51 No. 2, constituted the second half, in which Lei Hou took over first violin duties. Its first movement organically ebbed and flowed with natural tempo transitions that allowed the spacious music to breathe. The ensuing Andante moderato had a placid, undulating quality, but despite ardent playing of its anguished middle section, lapsed back into the homogeneity that typified the group’s Haydn. An ancient-sounding murkiness was achieved in the Quasi Minuetto, with fleet playing in its playful trio and a convincing evaporation into nothing to close it out. Disappointingly, the broad-shouldered finale was so bereft of contrast and organization as to make the double bar come as an unexpected surprise and relief.

Northwestern’s Winter Chamber Music Festival continues 7:30 p.m. Sunday with the Dover Quartet performing Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 (“American”), Berg’s String Quartet, Op. 3, and Beethoven’s First “Razumovsky” Quartet, Op. 59, No. 1 at Pick-Staiger Hall.

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