Named for Daedalus, the mythical creator of the Labyrinth of Crete and creature of perfect flight, the Quartet which bears his name opened the 58th season of the Asheville Chamber Music Series at the Unitarian Universalist Church with an exciting program of exacting quartets. The buzz about this young and vibrant aggregate of graduates from the Juilliard School, Curtis Institute, Cleveland Institute, and Harvard University is really true—they are accomplished, fearless, and deeply inspiring. Founding members are Min-Young Kim and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan; violist Jessica Thompson and violinist Ara Gregorian are more recent additions. Kim and Gregorian take turns as first violinist.
The program began with Mozart’s String Quartet No. 23 in F, K. 590 (1790), the last of the so-called “Prussian Quartets” written by Mozart in a desperate bid to garner a commission from Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II. As is true with so many of the composer’s works, the piece does not reflect the angst of the man, but rather an amazing and experimental response to trying days in a medium he knew so well. The Quartet gave this four-movement piece an exquisite performance, with finely balanced voicings, and an expressive range that suited the piece. Especially impressive was their cohesiveness of interpretation, executed with such clarity that one could easily follow the elements of dialogue, motivic development, and what was foreground and what was background. The second movement, a siciliana-like Andante, takes the form of a rather simple theme upon which a series of variations are developed. The third movement, a Menuetto with attitude, is by far the most unusual movement of the quartet. Its quirkiness unfolds in irregular phrase lengths, comical outbursts of dotted rhythms, an uneven heavy-handedness, and some surprising harmonies. The Trio section manages to get it together, but as the movement ends with the opening material, we’re left with a suspicion that the prankster may still lie in wait. The final Allegro begins with Haydnesque lightness and speed, only to morph into a more serious movement with profound developmental processes and ample room for virtuosic display.
Next on the program was the String Quartet, Op. 3 (1911) by Alban Berg (1885-1935), the last piece written during the composer’s studies with Arnold Schoenberg. The work had its genesis in his fifth piano sonata, a tonal work, which partially explains the quartet’s hybrid quality of tonal and atonal elements. The quartet is written without a key signature, leaving the composer free from commitment to any one key, and hinges on the presentation of motives in the first movement "Langsam," itself in sonata form, which are further developed in the second and last movement "Mäßige viertel." Central to the work is a vast palette of string colors which are achieved through the playing techniques of col legno (with the wood of the bow), sul ponticello (playing close to the bridge), and the use of mutes. It is kaleidoscopic and multi-dimensional, much like a Cubist painting, with blocks of sounds that unfold in a series of unpredictable gestures, intensities, harmonies, and melodic fragments. The Quartet’s performance, one of sustained concentration and high seriousness, exhibited a profound understanding of the piece.
The work after intermission, Beethoven‘s String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat, Op. 127 (1825), was performed with Ms. Kim as first violinist. Commissioned by Prince Nikolai Galitzin, a cellist, this was the first of a series of late quartets, Beethoven’s crowning achievements in the genre. Though plagued by this time by illness, total deafness, and numerous family problems, the work’s melodiousness exhibits a quality of direct appeal that belies the myth Beethoven was by now writing only for himself. The first movement begins with a series of heavy chords played Maestoso, a familiar attention-getting device, before the presentation of the tender, lyrical theme. This movement which develops these two ideas is as short as the second slow movement Adagio ma non troppo e molto cantabile is long. This outsized movement of a theme and five free variations dominates the work as a whole and suspends us in time; while the Quartet’s interpretation of the movement was superb, Kim’s playing here and elsewhere was simply thrilling. The third movement Scherzando vivace, sprightly and much shorter brings us back to the world of time, and Beethoven’s mischievous metric displacements are central to the fun. The Finale began with an uncanny and exquisite ensemble start to the movement, as though the four musicians were but a single player. The movement is tuneful and in places folksy, as though Beethoven is telling us he’s not lost touch with real life.