Put two young, high-energy string quartets on the same program in the guise of a showdown and you’re bound to generate a buzz. Festival Artistic Director Will Ransom had done this sort of playful pairing before in an earlier concert this season entitled “Dueling Pianists” with Philip Thomson, a classical artist, and jazz artist Gary Motley. Apparently this sort of marketing is working, as the audience packed the Martin-Lipscomb Performing Arts Center to hear the Attacca and the Linden String Quartets go toe to toe. Although these players can be fierce and successful competitors (more on those accomplishments later), it was clear that there is a mutual admiration society among them; they genuinely seem to enjoy each other’s company, and certainly enjoy making music together, as they did with the concert ender, Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E-flat, Op. 20. Preceding this were the Dvořák String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96 (“American”) played by the Linden Quartet and Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) performed by the Attacca, two works so vastly different as to defeat any comparison. In the end, of course, there were no “losers,” only performances of consummate artistry and near-flawless execution.

Formed at The Juilliard School in 2003, the members of the Attacca Quartet are Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violins; Luke Fleming, viola; and Andrew Yee, cello. They made their professional debut in 2007 as part of the Artists International Winners Series in Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, and were Winners of the Alice Coleman Grand Prize at the 60th annual Coleman Chamber Ensemble Competition in 2006. They recently won the 7th Osaka International Chamber Music Competition. They are active internationally as performing artists and mentors to young players.

The Linden String Quartet members are Sarah McElravy and Catherine Cosbey, violins; Eric Wong, viola; and Felix Umansky, cello. Currently the Graduate String Quartet-in-Residence at the Yale School of Music, they were the gold medalist and grand prize-winner of the 2009 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, winner of the 2010 Concert Artists Guild Victor Elmaleh Competition, and laureates of the 9th Borciani International String Quartet Competition. For 2011-12 the Linden String Quartet is the Steifel Quartet in Residence for the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, NY.

Although there were program notes, each quartet spoke about their respective quartet. Dvořák composed the “American” quartet in 1893, the year after his arrival in the U.S., in just 15 days. He had traveled to Spillville, Iowa, an enclave of Czech immigrants, where he encountered the music of native Americans, Negro spirituals, and the sounds of nature, all of which make their way into this work.  Dvořák was a “trainiac,” and one can easily hear “chugging” motives in both first and last movements. The first movement Allegro ma non troppo features a pentatonic melody of irrepressible joy, followed by a wistful second theme. The quartet‘s sense of timing was remarkable, its control, impeccable. The second movement, a gently rocking Lento arietta in which the melodies are repeated, featured a soul-filled melody introduced by the first violin imitating the vocal style of the Plains Indians. Though the violist’s accompaniment figures were repetitive, he phrased each and every one impeccably until they blossomed later into a moment of importance. The third movement, a brief but charming Scherzo, features in one of its trios four melodies sung by the scarlet tanager, a bird Dvořák heard in Spillville. The piece ends with a rousing Allegro in which the lively rhythmic patterns of the first movement (drumming or train?) return, but also some moments of stillness which showcased this fine quartet’s ability to give each and every moment its due.

From Dvořák’s cheery homage to things American, we turned to the Janáček, a tumultuous quartet composed in 1928 in just three weeks and inspired by the 74-year old composer’s passionate love for Kamila Stosslova, a lovely, married, and much younger woman. Janáček poured out his love for her in over 600 letters (she burned hers) and in music, in this case a fiery quartet with a program. The Attacca Quartet told the quartet’s story and played its various themes prior to the performance. The first movement Andante reflects the meeting of the two at a health spa. It begins violently with a fortissimo cello trill and a unison passage in the violins before the viola, the instrument associated with the beloved, plays eerily sul ponticello the theme that will be developed. This is the story of violent, unsettling love that rocks the soul. Janáček’s style is hyper-charged, restless, compressed, and emotionally volatile — a compendium of joy and suffering, all of which could be read in cellist Andrew Yee’s face as the piece unfolded. The second movement Allegro is a fantasy about Kamila giving birth to a son, perhaps fulfilling in the composer’s mind a wish to replace his own two-year-old who had died from meningitis. This, too, is a very intense movement, the energy of which is little relieved by its lyric passages. The third movement Moderato is labeled “melting into you,” music of such intimacy and beauty it gave me the guilty feeling I was intruding into the relationship, much like being caught reading someone else’s mail. This movement was not without its violent moment — silence, followed by a shocking, high outburst in the first violin. The final movement Allegro expresses in “fear of you” all the twists and turns of loving — risk, self doubt, fear of rejection, and jubilation. The Attacca Quartet took on this enormously dissonant, roller-coaster work and breathed real life and lucidity into its depths.

With the Mendelssohn Octet (1825), we were back in sunny terrain with all the familiar landmarks of classical formal style. The members of the two quartets were mingled to play down their “competition,” with violins (all ladies) on one side and violas and celli (gents) on the other. The programming here was a stroke of genius, as the ebullient music of its 16-year composer was a welcome chaser to the previous work. The piece was played in full symphonic style, with Sarah McElravy doing yeoman’s duty as the lead violinist. It was a memorable performance of this beloved work and a fitting close to an exceptional afternoon of the highest musical caliber.