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For the concluding concert of its 2016 series, Chamber Music Wilmington presented a performance by the Enso String Quartet.* It took place in the ideal chamber setting of Beckwith Recital Hall at UNCW and was a wonderful season closer. The Enso has been performing since 1999, has won a variety of awards, and tours extensively. They are among the front-rank performers of chamber music.
The opening work was the Italian Serenade by Hugo Wolf. This had a pleasing light tone, fine soft passages, and was rhythmically tight. Lusher tone in places – the group has a fairly lean sound – and more of the lilting character of the dance would have enhanced the performance still further.
The ensuing Six Bagatelles, Op. 9 by Anton Webern could hardly have been surpassed. The music moves in momentary thoughts, often with fragments of ideas spread among the instruments. In less consummate hands it can drop off into scattered moments and isolated sonorities. The Enso however put forth unbroken continuity, an eerie haunting quality in no. 4, gripping enigmatic silences in no. 5, and dramatic peaks despite the tiny scale.
This performance was followed by the excellent idea of repeating it. The audience had the opportunity to better absorb this finely textured music, and once again to savor the transparency and cohesion of the quartet's compelling playing.
The first half concluded with Beethoven's String Quartet in E-Flat, Op. 74. Beethoven's sixteen quartets belong among the summits of the entire chamber literature. Chamber Music Wilmington has had three quartet concerts this season, each including a piece from a different one of Beethoven's three periods of composition of these works. Op. 74 dates from the middle period of the composer's quartet output.
The first movement had fine clarity of line. A beautiful pp was followed by a perfect growth leading to the glowing coda. The pizzicato notes winding among the instruments – the origin of the nickname "Harp" – were played with great vitality. The thoughtful second movement had a silken legato sound. The third movement was the high point of the piece. Presaging the Ginastera to come, it was played with high rhythmic intensity. The abrupt extremes were dramatically portrayed and the trio was blistering. The whisper-soft repetition of the theme, played with pregnant energy, reminded the listener of just such hushed playing in the Webern that had preceded it. The piece ended with a leisurely rendering of the fourth movement variations.
The entire second half was devoted to the String Quartet No. 2 by Alberto Ginastera, one of the major composers of the twentieth century. The Enso has recorded all of the composer's three quartets, and their affinity for this music, with its craggy harmonies and driving rhythms, was abundantly clear. In such sounds and rhythms, the group, to this listener, finds its essence. This piece formed the climax of the program, in the intensity of the music and the visceral power and large-scale arc of the performance.
The first movement features high-energy rhythms. It was played with gripping vehemence contrasted with the pregnant lyricism of the soft sections. The second movement captured a sense of quiet desolation which rose to a desperate, febrile peak. The third movement reminded one again of Webern in its sometimes-fragmentary lines sliding among the instruments and its special effects sound world. Also as in the Webern, there were beautiful diaphanous textures. The fantasy quality of the fourth movement, its extemporaneous nature, was equally absorbing, and seized the listener with its intense cello solo in the middle. The last movement is marked "Furioso," and it was every bit of that. The ending buildup was almost unbearable in its intensity.
The Wilmington audience, in this observer's view growing steadily in its receptivity to 20th century music, responded with overt and much-deserved enthusiasm.
*The players are Maureen Nelson and Ken Hamao, violins, Melissa Reardon, viola, and Richard Belcher, cello.