Spektral Quartet serves music of the past and present with confidence

Mon Feb 18, 2019 at 3:05 pm

By Michael Cameron

The Spektral Quartet performed Sunday afternoon at the University of Chicago. Photo: Dan Kullman

Chicago’s Spektral Quartet presented another concert Sunday that was designed in part to disrupt the hallowed traditions of the chamber music format. If the program design seemed a bit clumsy, the execution of the four works was confident and convincing.

There was nothing novel in the mix of old and new. But perhaps in an attempt to provide some symmetry to the affair without stretching the length of the concert to uncomfortable proportions, they opened the concert with just a single movement from Mozart’s String Quartet No. 14, K. 387.

There is no reason to object to this practice simply because it defies tradition, but inner movements of quartets tend to exist in conversation with the movements that surround them. The unheard Minuet from this quartet is among the most delightfully original and expansive expressions of the form in the era, and the following Andante cantabile derives some if its charm by its placement in that context.

Still, a lyrical slow movement from the master is always a treat whatever the context, and the foursome delivered a well-considered reading of this Mozart gem. Violinist Clara Lyon traced the graceful curves of the sinewy melodic lines while her colleagues provided tasteful support. Ends of phrases seemed at times perfunctory, but this was in part the product of the dry acoustic of the Fulton Recital Hall. The ornate and intimate space looks warm and inviting, but the lack of even a speck of reverberation doesn’t flatter string sound.

The first of Elliott Carter’s Two Fragments is a wonder of shimmering, prismatic color painting assembled almost entirely from high sustained harmonics. The foursome handled its delicacies with sensitivity and control. The second is also dependent on elongated tones, but pitches are centered lower, and exclamatory bursts color the landscape. It was also thoughtfully polished and thoroughly characterful.

Hans Thomalla composed his Bagatellen for the quartet in 2015, and his language and the quartet’s personality seemed a perfect fit in this finely realized performance. The Northwestern University professor has a keen ear for string sonority, and these nine shorts pieces aim to disrupt our way of hearing and prioritizing the various elements of musical discourse.

Each of the pieces seem to construct a background for events that never occur, forcing the listener to find significance in sustained pitches, ostinatos, and, on occasion, accompaniment figures borrowed from earlier eras. The hypnotic opening of Schubert’s A minor Quartet (“Rosamunde”) may have been the source for some of these, and the scherzo of the Debussy Quartet another, though it’s unclear if he intends the listener to make such a precise identification.

As with Webern, sustained pitches are an important element, sometimes (as in the first movement) with pulsations that animate the long tones. Microtones are also utilized, most notably in the fourth bagatelle, a movement that seems to channel the minimalist oscillations of Giacinto Scelsi. The same could be said for parts of the sixth movement, with its single pitches repeated with subtle variations in dynamics and timbre.

The title of the final movement, Arioso, is either intended ironically (not a speck of lyricism interrupts the texture), or an invitation for the listener to challenge our definitions of the components of music. Among the sonic particulars are drawn bows on various wooden surfaces of the instruments.

Both the Carter and Thomalla are eminently worthy of inclusion into the quartet repertoire, but placing such relatively quiet pieces side-by-side made one yearn for works of a more forceful mien.

Much of Beethoven’s music fits that bill, and the foursome’s vivid reading of his last quartet (Op. 135) made for a welcome antidote.

The Quartet in F Major is an outlier among his late quartets, one that largely avoids the radical convention-shattering experiments of the others. It is constructed in the standard four movement sequence, all in similar length, and with more respect for the classical traditions that established the genre.

But eccentricities lurk here and there, and the quartet seemed eager to draw them out.

The first movement unfolded neatly, with sensible tempos, and balances were nicely judged. The development might have benefited from greater urgency, but its structure was clearly laid out.

The boisterous syncopations of the Scherzo were among the highlights of the concert, with inner voices (second violinist Maeve Feinberg and violist Doyle Armbrust) lending heft to the center while cellist Russell Rolen provided red-blooded intensity in the lower realms. This opus is new to the group, and no doubt time will lend more gravitas to their conception of the slow movement.

Similarly, the terrifying outbursts at the end of the slow introduction of the Finale could have erupted with more fury, but the relatively amiable sections of the Allegro proper were nicely assembled, with every voice clearly articulated for rhetorical effect.

In a concert preamble, Joe Bein of violin dealers Bein & Fushi described four instruments by Italian masters (Granchino, Serafin, Goffriller, Guarneri) currently on loan to the quartet for the afternoon’s performance, and the foursome were understandably effusive in their gratitude.

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