Coping with crisisThe Calidore String Quartet gave a concert for the Asheville Chamber Music Series. For this substantial program consisting of quartets by Dvořák, Janáček, and Schubert, the listener simply needs to record a series of superlatives.

The Calidore Quartet, founded in Los Angeles, has now been performing for ten years. In 2018 the group won the Avery Fisher Prize, and in 2017, a Lincoln Center Award for emerging artists. They have performed on series in Germany, Italy, and Spain, among other countries, in halls such as Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, and the Konzerthaus Berlin, and on festivals such as Mostly Mozart and the BBC Proms. In short, the Calidore has a flourishing national and international presence which makes them one of the leading quartets on the stage today.

This streaming concert was given online from the New York living room of the violist, Jeremy Berry. It was an attractive setting for world-class music making. As this writer has proposed in previous articles, streaming performances can be envisioned as part of the future of classical music, when audiences are once again free to gather, and performers no longer need to wear masks in order to play together.

The three quartets on this program have an interesting feature in common: all were written with remarkable speed – within a period of two weeks. This is especially noteworthy for the Schubert, which is as long as the other two works combined. The Dvořák expressed joy at a pastoral summer retreat; the Janáček was born in passionate but futile love; Schubert, writing at that speed, was simply manifesting his prodigious genius.

The first piece was the only one of a “popular” nature: the “American” Quartet of Antonín Dvořák, his Opus 96. Filled with Dvořák’s irrepressible tunefulness, it was written during a summer stay in Iowa in the three-year period that the composer spent in the United States.

The sound was set immediately, with delicate playing of the accompaniment figure which begins the Allegro first movement. The viola then launched beautifully into the vigorous opening melody. The second theme showed a particularly noticeable feature of the Calidore’s playing: whispering softs. The theme fairly floated back at the return, and a rich cantabile followed.

The second movement Lento featured lovely contemplative playing, putting forth a mood that was almost sorrowful. The extended movement came over as a continuous lyrical essay. In another recurring feature, Jeffrey Myers, the first violinist, soared with pure tone to the high pitches, in addition to sustaining the finest melodic lines. The fade at the end was just as fine.

The third movement featured the tight rhythmic precision which is another characteristic of the group. The trio began lyrically and expanded from that opening phrase; the repeat had yet another fine fade.

The finale had strong rhythm, wide contrasts, and more beautiful softs. The piece ended in bracing fashion.

The following first quartet of Janáček is titled “Kreutzer.” It was inspired by the Tolstoy novella Kreutzer Sonata, which in turn drew its name from the Beethoven violin sonata dedicated to Rodolphe Kreutzer, an esteemed violinist of Beethoven’s time who, ironically, did not like this Beethoven masterpiece.

This quartet, despite being his first, is vintage Janáček, written in 1923 when he was 69. Like Janáček’s music in general, it defies norms of phrasing and harmony, shifting through sometimes fragmentary episodes which, unless played by artists of high caliber, can be overtaken by disjuncture. It is a piece of high intensity stirred by biographical reality: as was the case with his second quartet written five years later, the composer was in the throes of obsessive love for a married woman far younger than he.

The suffering and passion of the piece was brought to full expression by the Calidore. The pathos of the opening theme; the harshness of the sul ponticello ruptures in the second movement; the recurring leaps between vituperative energy and lyricism of the third movement; and the lyrical fourth movement culminating in a giant climax until fading into enervation and an ending hanging on a single note. The quartet brought all this out with expressive lines, powerful drama, intense contrasts, and rhythmic precision.

A break made sense after the intensity of this performance. There was a five-minute timed intermission, followed by a five-minute question and answer session with the performers. A little musical acquaintance like this is always appealing to the audience.

Schubert’s Quartet in G, D.887, was the sole work following the intermission. This late piece has never achieved the popularity of some other Schubert works. It has beautiful melodies, but motive and atmosphere are more at the center of this 45-minute essay. It stands out for its evocation of what is to come. The Romantic – even the late Romantic – is adumbrated in its tremolos and sliding chords, sometimes quite chromatic. Wagner, even Bruckner, seem directly ahead. Schubert, as in other of his late works, is here a visionary.

The quartet begins in high drama, with a shift from major to minor which forms a feature of the whole work and is a characteristic part of Schubert’s style. The Calidore brought dramatic force to this opening. On the opposite side, the very soft accompaniment helped create great beauty in the main theme. The second theme had perfectly synchronized rhythm. After the opening drama, here is a gentle dance, an element which the Viennese Schubert built into many of his works. A lovely cello solo (Estelle Choi) was also featured in this section.

Another passage which stood out was one in which the two lower instruments very softly, yet unmistakably, carried the theme beneath an upper line obligato. This passage was an example of the quiet artistic mastery which characterizes the Calidore, here a seemingly effortless resonance.

The second movement had a long, reflective melody line. It is at first simpler harmonically and in atmosphere than the first movement, with almost a folk character. Yet it has dramatic dotted rhythm interjection sections which, with tremolos taking over, returns to the atmosphere of the first movement and a thoroughly 19th century spirit. It is almost operatic or even, one could imagine, cinematic. There follows a lovely melody which could be right from one of the lied. The quartet projected cohesion in this variety of material.

The third movement scherzo features the type of rapid repeated note figure which Schubert likes so much. This was played with perfectly even articulation by the quartet. It has almost a ghostly character suggesting a piano trio of Brahms still decades in the future. There are huge dynamic contrasts, crescendos and pullbacks; all were rendered compellingly. Then for the trio, a subdued, lovely, consoling melody. The quartet brought a wonderful fleet lightness to the return of the scherzo.

The final movement, Allegro, has much the feeling of a tarantella. It dances. There are difficult arpeggios which were played in perfect tune. Later there are shifts from minor to major and a dramatic build-up followed again by a delightful dance. Here too, the quartet put forth complete cohesion in the unfolding of this varied material. The coda is dramatic, rhythmic, and at times chromatic. Then the dance again – infectiously played.

This was, one could simply say, an utterly fine concert. The listener revels in artistry of such caliber.

This program repeats Saturday, November 21, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, November 22, at 3:00. See our sidebar for details.

Note: Previous reviews of this ensemble by this critic are here and here.