Whenever you attend a concert, play, ballet or any artistic presentation, whether consciously or not, you alter your expectations based on the artist(s). You don't expect the same level of performance from a student orchestra as you would from the Boston Symphony. There are also assumptions you make about the expertise of a performance based on the level of the players. When you go to hear Yo-Yo Ma, you never question the fact that his intonation will be impeccable and that he is technically flawless.
Similarly, when you get a chance to hear a world-class string quartet, it is a given that all four musicians are outstanding string players and all that that entails. This is a well-worn cliché, but great performances require more than playing the correct notes in tune and observing the dynamic markings. Admittedly, it can be vague and even indefinable, but there needs to be that "something else" that makes a performance a memorable musical event - especially from a group recognized as one of the best.
On March 29, the Chamber Arts Society of Duke University presented the Leipzig String Quartet (http://www.lsq.de/estart.html [inactive 2/07]; or http://www.shuppartists.com/Shupp/Artists/Leipzig.htm [inactive 9/08]) in the final concert of the 2002-3 season. Perhaps this well-established organization should change its name to the "String Quartet Society." It is undeniable that the literature for string quartets is some of the greatest music ever written and that they are indeed the most popular configuration, but some new ideas need to be injected into this series.
But I digress from the task at hand, so back to the Leipzig String Quartet, formed in 1988. They are Andreas Seidel and Tilman Büning, violins, Ivo Bauer, viola, and Matthias Mossdorf, cello. Three members were formerly principals in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. They have won numerous prizes and have more than fifty recordings to their credit.
I'm probably addressing my criticism of the string-quartet-hold on this series by saying that, as usual, there was a sign-up sheet at the box office for seats, and Reynolds Industries Theater was just about filled to capacity. The Leipzigers started off with String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6, by Beethoven. The first movement, Allegro con brio, perhaps makes up my earliest memory of "classical" music; it was used in a New York area kids' show I grew up with. It is a bouncy, lively, energetic romp that is as far away from the complexity and angst of the late Beethoven quartets as you can get. This is a work rich in contrasting emotion and styles, ranging from the lovely and lyrical Adagio to the highly syncopated Scherzo. Played with great precision, nearly perfect intonation and meticulous attention to dynamics, the obvious question is "so what was the problem?" I spent a good deal of the evening trying to answer that question, much in the same way you encounter a great performance and try to analyze what makes it so great. At such a high level, artists and their performances cannot be "explained," and it is obviously a subjective call. They had just performed several concerts in Virginia, then Boston and back to North Carolina, so it may have been just plain weariness that contributed to a business-as-usual performance. There seemed to be very little, if any, awareness or acknowledgement of the audience, and the result was a very workmanlike reading. More specifically, they seemed reluctant to really belt it out when the music called for it, so the dynamic range had a very low ceiling.
It is often said that ensembles in general, and quartets in particular, should attempt to blend their sound and be "as one." I find this approach eventually results in the inability of an individual player to break out from the pack when he/she needs to, and eventually leads to profound boredom. Such was my reaction to the majority of the Leipzig String Quartet's performance.
The only string quartet of Witold Lutoslawski was added to the program as a replacement of the originally scheduled Sixth Quartet of Bartók. According to the composer, "each player performs his part as though he were alone." Despite the growing restlessness of most of the audience as the length increased, I found this to be the highlight of the evening. It is a work filled with unique ideas presented concisely, and the somewhat austere style especially suited the Leipzig String Quartet's approach.
Franz Schubert's String Quartet No. 14, in D Minor, better known as "Death and the Maiden," is one of the most passionate and powerful artistic creations. The quieter, lyrical sections, particularly in the first movement, were very effective and portrayed the underlying torment that characterizes much of this work. As mentioned before, there didn't seem to be sufficient contrast between these sentiments and the powerful explosions that help create the tension and drama.
It was obvious that I was in the minority in my view of this performance since probably two thirds of the audience sprang to their feet at the conclusion, but no encore was to come. I would welcome an opportunity to hear the Leipzig String Quartet again. A live concert should, at the least, impart a feel of some communication and personal quality to the audience. Otherwise, what's the point - that's what recordings are for.