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Sublime Schubert: ‘Death and the Maiden’ at East Carolina University

by Steve Row

October 30, 2009, Greenville, NC: Some concerts feature splendid playing of not-so-splendid compositions. Some concerts feature not-so-splendid playing of splendid compositions. A few concerts feature splendid playing of splendid compositions, and that’s what the audience heard at the second program of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival’s 10th anniversary season in the Fletcher Recital Hall at East Carolina University.
One of the great pieces in the entire chamber music repertoire, Franz Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor, D. 810, “Death and the Maiden,” received a terrific reading as the exclamation point of a highly enjoyable concert. After according fine interpretations to 20th century quartets by Shostakovich and Ravel to open the program, the four players — violinists Soovin Kim and Steven Copes, violist and festival artistic director Ara Gregorian and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan — poured just about every ounce of energy, skill and musicianship they possessed into the well-known Schubert quartet, and the results were, well, splendid.

The contrast between the first two quartets and the final selection were interesting to note. Some chamber music for small ensemble often conveys a sense of music written for scaled-down orchestra — Brahms’ chamber pieces come to mind — but both the Shostakovich quartet (No. 1 in C, Op. 49, written in the late 1930s) and the Ravel quartet (his only string quartet, in F, written in 1903) seem to have been written with intimacy in mind.

The Schubert quartet, on the other hand, covers a wide range of musical styles and sounds, from the dense, dark, fortissimo unison passages and chords in the opening allegro, which create an almost scary sound (befitting Halloween perhaps?), to the energetic dancelike scherzo in the third movement and the near horse-race beginning of the final presto movement. The piece contains intricate counterpoint, singing legato lines and sections that mix stark drama with polished elegance.

This quartet of musicians was up to all the demands of the music, and then some. Kim, in particular, was a wonder to behold as first violinist in Schubert’s quartet. A member of the Johannes String Quartet who teaches at Stony Brook University in New York, Kim played beautifully, with such a delicacy, clarity and purity of sound that avoids thinness on the one hand and with such power and energy that avoids thickness on the other hand. (This was evident in his playing in the first chair of the Shostakovich quartet, too. Perhaps it is his 1709 Strad. . .)

For many, the high point of the performance was the dirge-like second movement, andante con moto, which has a theme-and-variations structure. The main theme is somber, mostly in minor key, and faintly resembles the famous allegretto movement in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony of a dozen years earlier, with its minimal main theme augmented by dark harmonies underneath. Here, the four variations don’t deviate wildly from the central motif, but Schubert composed some wonderfully expressive elements for each of the players.

Gregorian advised the audience at the outset of the piece that quite a ride would follow, and he was not exaggerating. So many of the composer’s musical devices were on display at various points, almost like a fireworks show that draws a string of “ooohs” and “aaahhhs” with each succeeding brilliance. And yet, the real admiration was directed at the four young men whose skill and talent brought everything together in such fine fashion.

The program for this concert was not a safe one — mixing Schubert with Shostakovich, and throwing in Ravel, too, carries some risk for those only interested in standard fare. But the Shostakovich piece contained melody, passion and even wistfulness that proved a winning combination, and the performers certainly played well. Mood shifts from light dance elements to melancholy, and sharp contrasts in dynamics, could be heard, and a few dissonances and near-dissonances contributed to the sense of individualism that the composer was trying to infuse into his music.

Ravel’s more familiar quartet, with Copes in the first violinist’s chair, had some lilting rhythms and interesting melody lines, sometimes with first and second violins playing an octave apart. The energetic second movement (assez vif — tres rhythme) opened with a forceful pizzicato section, featuring a nice exchange between Copes’ first violin and Gregorian’s viola and contained several different string playing techniques. Ramakrishnan, whose work during the evening ranged from subtle accompaniment to up-front leads and occasional deeply emotional lines, opened the third tres lent (“very slow”) movement nicely over chords in the other three instruments, and this movement contained restlessness, drama and tension.

A program consisting of just the Shostakovich and Ravel quartets would have been a winner, the way these chaps played them, but the addition of the “Death and the Maiden” quartet, the way these chaps played it, elevated the proceedings into an entirely different universe. Another winning program and performance for Gregorian and his colleagues.

   
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