Dutch quartet opens Winter Chamber Music Festival in compelling style

Sat Jan 13, 2018 at 2:21 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The Dudok Kwartet Amsterdam opened the WInter Chamber Music Festival Friday night at Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
The Dudok Kwartet Amsterdam opened the Winter Chamber Music Festival Friday night at Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

The 22nd annual Winter Chamber Music Festival opened Friday night in Evanston with an ideal leadoff event featuring the U.S. debut of a gifted young ensemble.

The Dudok Kwartet Amsterdam has won several European prizes and competitions, and already released two well-received CDs in its short career. The abrupt temperature dive of the preceding 24 hours–from high 50s to low teens–created some issues with their instruments but the Dutch musicians (violinists Judith van Driel and Marleen Wester, violist Marie-Louise de Jong and cellist David Faber) deftly handled the challenges, making an impressive showing in their stateside bow at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Hall.

The evening led off with Mozart’s Quartet in G major. In this first of the set of quartets Mozart dedicated to his friend and older colleague Haydn, K.387 brings a new richness and breadth to the composer’s work in the genre.

The Dudok Kwartet’s light, silvery sonority and graceful style proved well-suited to Mozart, and the musicians charted the ebb and flow with vivacious, lightly articulated playing and bracingly clean intonation.

What was lacking at times was a sense of enjoyment and personality. This was especially evident in the Minuetto where the players’ straight-faced bonhomie conveyed little of the music’s wit and charm. In the Andante, the slow tempo sagged intermittently and the playing likewise stayed on the surface, failing to explore the expressive potential of the music. The Dudok members were more convincing in the finale, bringing a youthful vivacity to Mozart’s fugal writing, with first violinist van Driel handling her bravura solo runs with elan.

It’s gratifying to see young chamber groups championing music of György Ligeti, and the Hungarian composer’s Quartet No. 1 (“Metamorphoses nocturnes”) was the evening’s centerpiece. Significantly, this was the second local performance of this rarely heard work this season, following the Arditti Quartet in the opening concert of University of Chicago Presents’ Ligeti Festival. 

Written in 1953-4, Ligeti’s First Quartet displays echoes of his compatriot Bartók but the composer’s emerging style is manifest as well in the mercurial gearshifts, jarring harmonic contrasts, and unusual instrumental effects.

Showing their versatility, the Dudok Kwartet seemed just as at home in this gnarly mid-20th-century score as in Mozart. The players put across a strongly projected performance of this fast-morphing, single-movement work, scrupulously attentive to the dynamic extremes and bringing a wry satiric touch to the off-kilter waltz. The Dudok players were most effective in the quiet sections, conveying the avian violin tendrils and ghostly harmonics, and bringing a sense of peaceful solace to the Andante tranquillo section.

Van Driel broke a string during an especially  hard-driving section and some musical momentum was inevitably lost, as the first violinist left the stage, repaired her instrument and returned for some prolonged retuning. Yet the performance continued with greater fire and intensity then before the mishap, earning all the Dudok players a well-deserved ovation.

The sudden death of his beloved sister Fanny devastated Felix Mendelssohn; the composer collapsed when he heard the news and never recovered, dying himself less than six months later at age 38 of a stroke just like his sibling.

The Quartet in F minor was the only fruit of Mendelssohn’s distraught final months and his last major work. Unlike the lyric charm and cheerful esprit of his best-known music, Op. 80 is a dark and turbulent work, shot through with anger and anguish.

The Dudok Kwartet delivered their finest playing of the night in Mendelssohn’s swan song, attacking the driving opening pages with unbridled intensity, the sense of the composer’s raging against earthly fate fully manifest. There is little letup in the ensuing movement, which the players put across with biting thrust, the restless, jabbing accents like throbbing psychic pain.

The Adagio, a memory of Fanny, could have used more inward tenderness but the ensemble conveyed the nostalgic ache sensitively. The compelling performance was rounded off with blistering account of the finale, driving the music’s emotional desperation to its bitter coda.

No encore was offered but one wasn’t required. The Dudok Kwartet Amsterdam is clearly a talented ensemble on the rise and one looks forward to their next visit to Chicago.

The Winter Chamber Music Festival continues 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Pick-Staiger Hall with the Rolston String Quartet performing music of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and R. Murray Schafer. events.music.northwestern.edu

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