Chamber Music Wilmington concluded its 2016-17 recital series with the Jasper String Quartet. Held in the acoustically superb Beckwith Recital Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the performance showcased a very fine ensemble with a wide range of color and rich tone.
The program began with Haydn's last completed string quartet, Op. 77, No. 2 in F. The opening was light and witty and worked up real passion by the time of the minor mode transition. The rhythm was tight – of high importance in this music – and the instruments blended fully.
The second movement, marked presto, had the fun and energy of a country dance where the dancers have imbibed a bit before coming. There was fun give and take among the instruments and a perfect pianissimo entrance of the trio. The third movement was played with full, expressive sound. It opened with a pleasing conversation between the first violin (J. Freivogel) and cello (Rachel Henderson Freivogel). One wished for the cello to be softer, so as to allow the leading line to show better. Later, one would have liked the viola (Sam Quintal) to show forth more. Overall in this movement, one could appreciate the richness and interweaving of the counterpoint, but this came at the expense of full expression emerging from the leading melodic lines.
The ensemble has a big sound, perhaps made even fuller by the very resonant Beckwith acoustics. But it may also be a characteristic of the group not to linger on the very soft side of the dynamic spectrum. The last movement had good humor, but overall one would have liked more soft playing, beginning with the opening and its light, tripping motive. Still, one could not help but enjoy this movement of good cheer. The group brought out passion even through the humor, with some wonderful give and take and a funny coda where one just had to smile.
The next piece was "Musica Celestis" by the fine American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. The winner of many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for his second string quartet, Kernis had earlier begun his string of successes in the orchestral realm. In 1983 – Kernis was 23 – Zubin Mehta led the world premiere of his Dream of the Morning Sky, with the New York Philharmonic. "Musica Celestis" is the slow movement of his first string quartet, and has entered the repertory as stand-alone piece.
The music was prefaced by a helpful spoken introduction; one hopes for the day when perhaps less-familiar but accessible music such as this will not need introduction. The performance began with an ethereal ppp – the volume level which one had hoped for previously. One could have savored that sound still longer. The high-range playing fully evoked the music of the spheres, which is the title of the piece. It also showed the consummate command of the performers. The muted passage without the first violin (Sae Chonabayashi, second violin) had special beauty, after which the first violin joined again almost imperceptibly – a beautiful example of the ensemble mastery of these artists. The long phrases were finely spun out. The high-lying climax was intense and the drop to almost nothing most effective. Again, one could have enjoyed the ppp for still longer. The return, again in ppp, was exquisite, as was the hushed ending. This was the atmosphere which carried the audience into the intermission.
The second half was taken up with the large-scale final work, Schubert's 14th string quartet and one of his greatest masterpieces, the "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, D. 810. The spoken introduction helpfully gave the text of this poem with respect to the second movement, without suggesting the dark presence of death in the work as a whole in its drama and violent contrasts. Perhaps that was less important, as the performance itself conveyed everything.
The opening carried full dramatic weight and brought forth an almost primal energy. The second theme, intensely characteristic of Schubert, is as contrasting as one could imagine. Here Schubert answers drama with dance, in his almost uniquely Viennese quality of light and dark. Not all performers can empathize with this, but the Jasper Quartet clearly does. The second theme flowed beautifully and seamlessly from the first. Stern rhythms then returned with full force; in the closing theme, as occurred earlier, one wished for the theme to be highlighted more over the counterpoint. Nonetheless, so strong was the impression that this listener wished the exposition would be repeated. Throughout the movement, the difficult writing was consummately executed. Schubert's open lines pose great challenges, here met with complete aplomb. The coda of the movement was ominous and fearsome.
The second movement variations are based on the material of the earlier Schubert song "Death and the Maiden." The soft opening was beautiful, as was the drawing out of the second half of the theme. In a later variation there were the difficult open lines of Schubert again, whereby again at times, one wished the theme were more prominent over the countermelody. Nonetheless, the beautiful delicacy of the countermelody was memorable. The entire movement, even with all of the repeats, flowed in a seamless arc. One savored the repeats as they spun out a new sense of the material. The wistful ending was most delicate.
The third movement had all the sharpness of rhythm one could wish for. The trio asserted its limpid, lyrical character beautifully.
The fourth movement is like a dark dance. Perhaps the opening could have been more spectral, but this movement was a powerful peroration to the piece and the program. The rhythm was as tight as could be, and the passagework had masterful articulation. There was a wonderful fade to ppp and a coda of high intensity, spectral now, powerful, primal in force. This passionate performance was greeted by a deserved ovation from the nearly sold-out auditorium.