The Parker String Quartet (Daniel Chong, violin; David McCarroll, violin; Jessica Bodner, viola; Kee-Hyun Kim, violoncello) made what I expect was their North Carolina debut under the auspices of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild with an unusual and rather demanding program. The Parkers are still at the beginning of what promises to be a highly rewarding career, having studied in the quartet program at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and they already have two CD releases under their belt, one of Bartók for Zig Zag Territoires, and another of Ligeti for Naxos.
The afternoon began with what is now a modern classic, the "Fratres" of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, a work that exists in many different manifestations and re-scorings, all stemming from Pärt. The basic material is so direct and compelling (a diatonic series of sinking chords over a tonal pedal), in this arrangement beginning with hushed harmonics, that the scoring is almost beside the point (think of the multiple arrangements of any given Bach composition). In the hands of the Parkers, the result was shining perfection, absolute calm, a compelling litany, a gem, an icon. I can’t believe that if someone walked in not knowing this work, and heard this performance, that their life would not be marked in some way.
The serious tone continued with the second String Quartet of Benjamin Britten, another of the major voices of the later twentieth century. It has always seemed a mystery to me that so little attention has been paid to the three acknowledged string quartets by Britten (1941, 1945, 1975), given that Britten created so many masterpieces in other genres (and indeed in addition to these three, Britten produced five other works for the combination between 1928 and 1933). It seems strange to say, but perhaps Britten is simply a little too demanding of the listener to be widely popular. The quartet opens with a substantial movement (close to ten minutes), one oddly reminiscent of the Pärt, in fact, with a unison melody over a tonic drone, and highly original in its idiom, not especially English, but not continental either. The second movement is a quick scherzo. The sticking point comes in the final Chacony (the English name for the ciaccona or chaconne), based on a repeating form (as the Baroque chaconne would have been), but extended over almost twenty minutes. The structure of the repetition is not clearly audible to the audience, so the result is very demanding listening, not because the language is rebarbative, but because the narrative is hard to follow. The rhetoric of the highly unusual close, where the closing chord is affirmed again and again against the discordant notes of the chacony, was beautiful rendered.
Your reviewer was disappointed to find that the promised Dvořák had been replaced by the Schubert Quartet “Death and the Maiden,” since so much seriousness might have been better balanced with a hopeful vision on the second half. Be that as it may, the Schubert was beautifully rendered (my notes are full of complementary adjectives – excellent control, exceptional playing) and the conclusion was greeted by shouts of “bravo!” from the hall. The enthusiasm of the chamber music devotees was rewarded by an exquisite encore – the Adagio from Mozart’s K. 156.
The Parker String Quartet has the musicianship and technical skills to become one of the great string quartets, and seem to have a particular vocation for contemporary music. I hope that they find the opportunity to come back to North Carolina soon.