vision string quartet makes a memorable U.S. debut at Mandel Hall

Sat Nov 09, 2019 at 1:51 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The vision string quartet performed music of Bacewicz, Haydn and Schumann Friday night at Mandel Hall.

Friday night’s concert at Mandel Hall marked the U.S. debut of the vision string quartet. And so stunning was the level of musicianship and the depth of interpretive insight demonstrated by this young German ensemble, one is tempted to say that years from now, you can tell people you were there.

Led by the remarkable first violinist Jakob Encke, they are an uncommonly well matched foursome in sound, coloring and style and play all their music by memory. In addition to their technical prowess, the vision string quartet is a unique group with an individual approach to performing. Except for cellist Leonard Disselhorst, they play standing up, Emerson style, which adds a certain physical intensity to their playing. They even switch stage positions for each work. The only wee complaint is that their preferred lower-casing of the quartet’s  name is a bit dated and self-consciously “arty.”

That apart, it was also unusual (and gratifying) that vision quartet led off the UC Chicago Presents event with a 20th century work, Grażyna Bacewicz’s String Quartet No. 4. 

A violinist and composer, Bacewicz (1909-1969)  was notably prolific, writing four symphonies, twelve concertos (seven for violin) and seven string quartets. The Polish composer’s Fourth Quartet (1950) is characteristic in its restless tensions and quickly changing moods and tempos.

Like all first-rate musicians, the vision quartet members make one believe that they are ideally suited to whichever work they happen to be performing. The ensemble’s lean, acutely focused sonority and laser-like precision seemed tailor-made for Bacewicz, and the foursome’s nervy style suited this mercurial music, the players jumping from bursts of fast music to fleeting passages of plaintive lyricism unsettled harmonics and rustic Silesian dance rhythms.

Yet that edgy modern sound proved eminently suited to Haydn as well, in the ensuing Quartet in G major, Op. 77, no. 1. Here, their light-bowed articulation and quicksilver touch captured the playful off-center quirk of Haydn in the opening movement. The players brought refined elegance to the theme of the Adagio, the ensuing variations vitally characterized with attentive dynamic marking that never sounded pedantic. The Minuet had a bumptious al fresco quality and the Presto finale went like the wind, with the players’ freewheeling rendition thrilling, hairpin dynamics and rhythmic gear shifts all taken in tempo without breaking a sweat.

Schumann’s Third and final Quartet came after intermission. Here too, the vision quartet members were fully in synch with the bivalved nature of this work. In the first movement they gave the opening theme all due classical grace yet firmly charted the abrupt modulations without upending the Rococo veneer. Throughout, Schumann’s emotional disequilibrium was tautly manifest, the decorum of the tenderly expressive qualities vying with the restless agitation of his Florestan persona.

The enthusiastic ovation brought the foursome back out for a real change-of-pace finale—their own light-hearted composition, Samba. With a lilting melody that reflected the Brazilian dance rhythm, this quietly virtuosic pizzicato showpiece was a hoot, with the musicians elbowing each other out of the solo spotlight to each perform their own bravura rock-guitarist solo. For all the humor, it was also an astonishing instrumental display, with the players drawing out a vast dynamic range of finger picking at incredibly fast speeds.

UChicago Presents’ next event is Tenebrae, 7:30 p.m. November 15 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

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