A Choice Performance by the American String Quartet Uptown
The classical music world is just like the rock world, in the sense that the most interesting shows usually take place outside the big concert halls. Case in point: the American String Quartet at Manhattan School of Music uptown Sunday afternoon. The Borden Auditorium there has excellent acoustics and accommodated a pretty full house who had come out to see a decidedly non-stodgy program for an attractive $15. What gives? The American String Quartet are in residency there. On one hand, it’s hard to believe that their name wasn’t taken until the original members made it theirs in 1974 while still students at Juilliard; on the other, there was still plenty of snobbery in the old European guard at that point. The Quartet’s 37 year history since then speaks for itself.
This time out they played a slightly offbeat, absolutely fascinating program of Richard Strauss and Beethoven, opening with the sextet from Capriccio, the 1941 Strauss opera, augmented by Karen Dreyfus on viola and Alan Stepansky on cello. The concept is late Romantic orchestration of a baroque-style theme, sort of Strauss’ equivalent of Rachmaninoff beefing up late Renaissance Italian chamber works. It’s probably more interesting from an architectural point of view than it is to hear, although for that reason it’s probably a lot of fun to play. And that’s what the Quartet had with it, but with plenty of old world vibrato and careful attention to the endless exchanges of voices. Violist Daniel Avsholomov seized the chance to fire off some deliciously shivery filigrees early on; Stepansky got to burn plenty of high-tension, low-register amperage as the piece went on.
The other Strauss work was an eye-opening septet arrangement of the Metamorphosen. With Metropolitan Opera bassist Timothy Cobb joining the ensemble, would this alternate version, posthumously discovered in 1990 in a sketch by the composer, be starker and darker than the fullscale tone poem for string orchestra? Not really. The overall balance and the alternate voices of the seven strings delivered a pillowy lushness that sounded like a considerably larger group, credit being due to both the composer and the ensemble. The piece, written as bombs were falling on Germany, is a requiem of sorts for a cosmopolitan Europe (or at least the romantic notion of a cosmopolitan Europe) gone forever. What metamorphosis there is develops very subtly, pulsing with a hypnotic swirl, finally quoting Beethoven as it reaches the brief dirge that ends it. It was a feast of minute timbral contrasts: violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney worked tones with such depth and clarity that it seemed as if there were a couple of oboes in the group.
Is Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 130 the greatest of all works for string quartet? Some would say that: it’s also cruelly difficult to play. But this group first completed their Beethoven cycle decades ago, and they have it in their fingers, going deep into it for an especially revealing, emotionally charged performance. They let the rather tongue-in-cheek initial movements speak for themselves with a matter-of-factness which gave away absolutely no inkling of the fireworks in store. The little German dance that’s been used as a backdrop for a million PSA’s on NPR was delivered with an unexpected tinge of Teutonic gravitas. By contrast, the famous Cavatina was anything but weepy: its hushed somber restraint packed a quietly mighty wallop. And then they dug into the original conclusion, the Grosse Fugue, with its maze of interwoven polyphony and jarring tonalities that sound almost as radical now as they did in 1822. Nobody got offstage without breaking a sweat after this one, especially cellist Wolfram Koessel, leaping across the fingerboard with equal parts fire and aplomb. It falls to the violist to blaze through the highest point of the concluding crescendo: Avshalomov didn’t allude to it visually, but there’s no doubt that he was grinning inside.
These Manhattan School of Music concerts are a bargain (they have a whole slate of jazz as well as chamber and orchestral music), and they’re easy to get to (straight uptown on the 1 train to 125th Street; exit the back of the train if you’re coming from downtown and walk three blocks back to 122nd). Don’t rule out another similarly exciting program from the American String Quartet there this season.
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