When the Kontras String Quartet, a Chicago-based ensemble, received a residency in the Western Piedmont region of North Carolina a few years ago, they were promptly invited to give a concert in Hendersonville during the Hendersonville Chamber Music's 2011-12 season. This quartet just made its fourth consecutive annual appearance in Hendersonville (a tiny city of 10,000) and attracted well over a hundred lovers of chamber music with a concert of Beethoven, Webern, and Janáček.
The four members of the quartet come from four countries but first met in Chicago, where they are now based. First violinist Dmitri Pogorelov is from Russia. Second violinist François Henkins is from South Africa (“Kontras” means “Contrasts” in Afrikaans). Violist Ai Ishida is from Japan, and cellist Jean Hatmaker is American. They will release a CD of quartets from these four countries in spring 2015.
I have previously commented on the surprising maturity of their playing. This young quartet gets even better by the year. How refreshing, also, to have musicians who can articulate a theme for a concert and explain their program in connection with the theme! Since Valentine’s Day is approaching, the theme for Sunday’s concert was “Intimate Letters.”
Beethoven’s Opus 18, No.1 was discussed in connection with the composer’s passionate unsent letter addressed to “Dearly Beloved.” The work was then played in a manner appropriate to early Beethoven. The Allegro begins in Haydn-like classical style, but in the development section of the movement, you feel passion. Order is restored and the movement ends with a calmer recapitulation. The Adagio shows definite signs of early romanticism but again includes lessons learned from Haydn, such as the effective and dramatic use of rests. The hearty Scherzo is pure Beethoven, and the final Allegro provides a clean finish. The Kontras Quartet has this work under their fingers; I suspect that by now they may have all sixteen (seventeen if you separate the Grosse Fugue) in their repertoire.
Anton Webern’s early one-movement work “Langsamer Satz,” we were told, was written while the composer was hiking with his fiancée. It was pointed out that this was the only one of the three works that represented a consummated love. The piece was written before Webern adopted the twelve-tone style and reminded me of what Wagner might have written had he lived another twenty years.
Leoš Janáček is primarily known for his operas such as Jenůfa and The Cunning Little Vixen. He wrote some highly personal piano works and just two string quartets, both of which are extremely important works. “Lettres Intimes” (“Intimate Letters”) is his second quartet, written in 1928, shortly before he died. The back-story of this work is his ten-year passion for a married woman forty years younger than he. He wrote over 700 letters to this woman, but there is no evidence that the love was ever more than epistolary.
Janáček’s “Intimate Letters” is a favorite quartet of mine. It is exceedingly difficult technically, with unusual bowings and effects. Having the 1996 Guarneri Quartet recording in my mind, I had some trepidation about hearing the Kontras’ version. I need not have worried. Every detail was there, deeply felt and incorporated into a fine performance. One felt the sad moments of “what might have been” in the second movement. One heard pain and distress break into the Moravian dance in the fourth movement. The unusual measures marked “furioso sul ponticello” that are played fff on the bridge seemed entirely organically connected to the final resolution. This was indeed the work that Janáček described to his beloved as “a piece in which the earth moves.”
While the Andante Cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s first string quartet was performed beautifully as an encore, it seemed anticlimactic after the passionate Janáček that I carry away as my fond memory of this concert.