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String quartets such as the Emerson and the Orion have accustomed audiences to the first and second violins exchanging positions as different works are played. The Artaria String Quartet, an "original instruments" ensemble formed in the San Francisco Bay Area fifteen years ago, has taken this a step further by rotating players in both violin positions as well as the viola! This was even more confusing, visually, at their revelatory March 3 matinee concert, part of the distinguished William S. Newman Artist Series, because the viola that they use is remarkably small. Members of our own dormant Ensemble Courant clarified this and identified the players whose changing bases brought to mind the classic Abbott and Costello comedy routine. Unusual seating arrangements also characterized the Artaria Quartet. The violins were divided on the left and right front positions, cellist Elizabeth Le Guin sat behind the first violinist, and the rotating violist was to her left behind the second violinist.
Real or borrowed Russian music was the overall theme of the works played and the reason that they were all dressed in gloomy black, according to Anthony Martin, who played first violin in the opening work, Glinka's String Quartet No. 2, viola in the rare Third Quartet of Alyabyev, and second violin in Beethoven's second Razumovsky Quartet. Tekla Cunningham was second violin in the Glinka, first in the Alyabyev, and violist in the Beethoven. From viola in the Glinka, Elizabeth Blumenstock moved to second violin in the Alyabyev and first in the Beethoven. To ease their travel from the West Coast, Le Guin used the wonderfully rich-sounding cello of UNC's Brent Wissick. Her vigorous wrenching of the pins was unnerving to me at least!
The quartet's mission is to play the classical period works using the gut strings, lighter bows and flatter bridges with lower string tension that characterized the 18th and the early 19th centuries. We have heard Jaap Schroeder and his Smithson String Quartet and his earlier Esterházy String Quartet as well as members of Ensemble Courant in much of the classical repertory. As usual with such instruments, Sunday's high humidity meant constant and extensive re-tuning between nearly every movement.
A CD of Glinka's String Quartet No. 2 in F allowed for pre-concert exposure to the first piece played. New Grove indicates that it was composed in 1830 and finally published in Moscow in 1878 as part of his sister Ludmila's heroic efforts to preserve his works and promote his position as "the father of art music in Russia" and of Russian "national" music. In his Memoirs, translated by Richard B. Mudge, Glinka is fairly dismissive of this work, writing: "In the periods between illnesses (...burning fits and delirium...), I went on with my music. Finally, in the early spring of 1830, I wrote an F Major quartet for stringed instruments. Thanks to V.P. Englelhardt, I was able to hear the performance of this rather amateurish work several times and it seems to me that it must reflect the poor state of my health at that period." Geoffrey Norris, writing in the New Oxford Companion to Music, observes that the quartet "closed Glinka's classical phase..., a line of development that was unsuitable for him." The quartet is tuneful with fresh sounding themes to which nothing very complicated is done other than featuring an instrument in turn, pairing several or having all four play in unison. Compared with early Haydn or Mozart--not to mention the earlier but much more sophisticated Beethoven quartet also given on this occasion--Glinka made very little advancement over the quartets of Boccherini although he had enough themes for late Haydn or Mozart to have made several quartets. Along with cataloging every ache and pain, Glinka's memoirs reveal that he studied classical form with several teachers, with modest success, but the Second Quartet contains neither elaborate fugues nor significant counterpoint.
The Third Quartet by Siberian-born Alexander Alexandrovich Alyabyev (1787-1851) is a distinct rarity. New Grove credits him with three quartets, an E-flat from 1815 (published in 1952), the G Major work played in Chapel Hill (1825, published in 1950), and an unfinished score in G Minor (1842). Martin recounted all the sleuthing that reference librarians went through to find a single copy of the 1950 Moscow score, ultimately located in the fast grasp of the Harvard University Library where the operative philosophy, he implied, was "neither a borrower nor lender be." Through an agent, he managed to get a photocopy that was copied and cut and pasted into a workable score. Le Guin pointed out the paradox that the older works on the program were more cutting edge and advanced that the later ones. Beethoven was in effect at "ground zero," creatively, positioned on the cutting edge of Western music at the time. The Russian composers--Glinka in St. Petersburg and Moscow and Alyabyev in Siberia--were out of the mainstream of "modern" developments in terms of both geography and time. Alyabyev, found guilty of murdering a card game opponent in 1825, was exiled to Siberia in 1828. Le Guin noted the parallel to Haydn, who had attributed his originality to having been isolated at the Esterházy estate. Far from Moscow's fashion centers, Alyabyev experimented with serf orchestras and chamber musicians. Norris reminds us that the composer's claim to fame was the "gentle, folk-tinged song 'Solovey' ('The Nightingale')," interpolated by Patti and Viardot into the Lesson Scene of Rossini's Barber of Seville. The theme also appears in the slow movement of the Third Quartet. Unusually, the first two movements, both marked "allegro," were played without a re-tuning break, which made the over-abundance of ideas seem profligate. The themes were interesting in and of themselves but the development was even less extensive than Glinka's. The phrase "it hurts so good" was suggested as the gist of the song on which the soulful slow movement was based so I infer that it is a "somebody-did-somebody-wrong" number like those that litter authentic country music of the American South.
The concert ended with a magnificent and vital interpretation of Beethoven's Quartet No. 8 in E Minor, Op. 59/2, the second of three scores dedicated to the Russian Count Razumovsky. Coming after the two tuneful Russian efforts it seemed even more revolutionary than usual. Compared with other classical period performances that I had heard, this was a much more driven concept with little heed paid to the supposed limitations of the instruments or pedantry. The performance was completely engaging. The Razumovsky quartets are among my favorites, and even though the outlines and flow were quiet familiar, it was like hearing the piece for the very first time. Between the high humidity and the passionate playing in the last movement, there were some intonation slips, but this was a small price to pay for the Artaria's expressive reading.