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Chamber Music Review Print

Degas with Bartók and Beethoven

January 13, 2008 - Raleigh, NC:

Some advanced thinker has pointed out that you know you are getting old when policemen start looking young. Possibly that’s accurate, but can the same not be said about members of chamber music groups? Many in the capacity crowd at the North Carolina Museum of Art must have wondered where the years had flown. The “youngsters” involved were members of the Degas Quartet, a group whose polished playing belied their apparent youth. Violinists Emily Popham and Timothy Peters, violist Simon Értz, and cellist Philip von Maltzman appeared as a presentation of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild and the Museum.

The series is called Sights and Sounds on Sundays. A string quartet that was formed in 2000 furnished the sounds that enlivened an otherwise dreary afternoon. These incredibly gifted players are the current recipients of a residency grant from Chamber Music America, making possible the North Carolina Quartet Project. From their home base in Greensboro, they combine university residences at Appalachian State University, UNC Wilmington, and UNC Pembroke. The quartet has worked with numerous of the world’s leading chamber ensembles. The members have individually studied with the likes of Robert Mann and Janos Starker.

The program was consonant with the players’ goals of education and outreach. The cellist served as articulate spokesman, although perhaps a bit protracted for this audience. He advised that the Bartók String Quartet, Op.17/2 and the Beethoven String Quartet in C, Op. 59/3 marked rather abrupt turning points in the literature, about a century removed from each other. Indeed, one could scarcely find chamber sets as celebrated as Bartók’s six quartets and Beethoven’s sixteen (or so, according to who’s counting).

The group’s competence was obvious early on as they negotiated the complex rhythms, harmonies, and timing of the Bartók allegro molto movement. They then followed in easy, expert fashion with the high voice / low voice dialogs of the lento.

The members’ physical conditioning paid off as they performed both works without any considerable intermission. There are few more engaging passages in the literature than the opening bars from the andante movement of the Beethoven piece. The players were in their element with the insistent and repeated “higher” voice melodies followed by the cello’s pizzicato replies. The ensemble’s discipline was best demonstrated in the precision and “togetherness” required throughout the minuet movement. This same discipline and evidently intense training were brought to bear in their captivating attacks on the frantic fugues of the last movement.

If you closed your eyes you would have been hard pressed to distinguish between these young players and the numerous world-class quartets that have visited the area over the years. Good for the organizations that make this fine art form available to ever wider (and younger) audiences!