Coping with crisisChamber Music Raleigh has graced our state’s listeners – and presumably others beyond North Carolina’s borders – with the epitome of music making, and a fine display of the capability of the virtual concert setting.

The Schumann Quartet – listeners were informed in the opening remarks, clearly with enjoyment, that they are not related to the great composer by that name – includes three brothers who, according to their web biography, have been making music together since their earliest years. This may help account for the symbiotic quality of their playing together, in which performers of the highest individual quality combine into, in essence, a single instrument. The quartet’s violist – who has been playing with the group for the past nine years – has succeeded in joining this chemistry as though she was born into it as well.

The quartet has received accolades. They have toured around the U.S. and Europe and won several prizes for their recordings. A singular accomplishment was their three-year residency at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York, which organization produced and presented this online performance.

What one heard could not have been finer in the two works on this program: Quartet No. 1, Op. 11, by Tchaikovksy, and the epic Quartet in F, No. 1, Op. 59, by Beethoven. If the essence of chamber music is the melding of individualities into a seamless unit, then this ensemble has achieved it. This was true wherever one listened. High-lying leading lines (Erik Schumann, 1st violin) had flawless pitch and phrasing. So too did his accompanying or embellishing lines such as, in one particularly fine place, later in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky, where he wove his line most finely around the leading parts of the other instruments. Ken Schumann, second violin, was equally excellent in the give and take between the two violins, contributing ideally to the musical conversation between them.

Cellist Mark Schumann showed, among many other fine passages, a beautifully tapered main line at the opening of the Beethoven. At the same time, the accompanying chords of the other players were precise and dynamic. Not simply accompaniment, they propelled the lyricism of the leading cello.

Liisa Randalu, viola, is the only quartet member who does not belong to the Schumann family. But the listener could easily believe that she does. Her passionate playing shone through in many places. One such spot was in the last movement of the Tchaikovsky, where after a delicate, light passage, the viola took over richly with melody, while the previous rhythm became the accompaniment. From there the viola handed it beautifully to the cello. Such passages make the experience of chamber music simply exquisite.

Taken as an artistic unit, the quartet excelled from the beginning, in the perfectly balanced opening theme of the Tchaikovsky. The intensive motivic writing of the development in the first movement was rendered with precision and drama. The group was willing and able to pursue outsized passion. The famous, lyrical second movement had sensitive balancing and shifting among the parts. The pianissimo of the middle section had a wonderful delicacy. The third movement Scherzo had gusto and rhythmic precision; the bowing in the rhythms was ideally matched. The ending of the fourth movement stood out, where a perfectly-timed dramatic pause led to the jubilant and excitingly-played coda.

The 40-minute Beethoven quartet is a great challenge for any quartet in its sheer size and the scope of its hugely varied material. Beethoven, ever the explorer, wrote here the longest quartet anyone had composed until that time. The Schumann players wove the work together cogently. There were fine colors, with moments of mystery in the first movement, joined with the ever-present beauty of articulation and balance. The humor of the second movement was nicely brought out, while the rhythm in the initial figure displayed flawless coordination.

The large-scale Adagio may hold the widest range of emotion in the work, and here one experienced soulful expression, anguish, and some beautiful hushed passages. The emotive drooping figure was an expressive high point. The last movement Thème Russe received a relatively lyrical treatment, more than the jaunty one which might be implied by the folk element. That did not prevent the rhythmic development section from gathering furious energy. One of the high points of the concert was its ending: A beautiful shift from rhythmic playing to a nostalgic final soft statement of the theme. It was whisper soft, beautifully gentle, and then the final phrases brought the piece to a hectic, almost whirlwind conclusion.

Along with the high artistry, this performance stood out in an extra-musical way: The listener was treated to a first-rate visual experience. Much as one sees in performances by orchestras, as for instance in the Berlin Philharmonic’s superb Digital Concert Hall, here there were many views of the different players and shifts of visual perspective. Sometimes the camera panned around the players or moved in from a distance. On some occasions there were split-screen views. This made the visual experience of the performance a varied one; what one saw continually complemented what one heard.

Another enhancement, which this writer would like to commend to all producers of virtual concerts, is that one can scroll through the performance. With the scroll bar one can repeat a snippet or an entire movement, or pick up at a chosen point in the middle. This is the ideal way to receive a virtual performance. Combined with the quintessence of chamber music, the technical features made this concert as fine an experience as a listener could hope for.

Note: This concert was produced by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the live stream was marketed to the North Carolina market by Chamber Music Raleigh. The program remains available on demand through April 1 here.