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The Chamber Music Society of Wilmington concluded its memorable 2005-06 season on April 30 with a highly anticipated visit by the Miami String Quartet. The program featured a Haydn string quartet ("The Lark"), Mozart's Piano Quartet in G Minor, K.478, and Schumann's String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 41, No. 1. The performance marked the final concert in the ballroom of Thalian Hall; beginning next season, CMSW – which will be renamed Chamber Music Wilmington – will hold its concerts in the new recital hall at UNCW, currently under construction. (I, for one, will not miss the fire engines blaring down 3rd Street!)
Haydn's "Lark" quartet dates from 1790 and was one of a set of quartets taken on his first tour to London. Apparently Haydn composed these pieces with a personal friend – Esterházy violinist Johann Tost – in mind, and, not surprisingly, the predominance of the first violin is conspicuous throughout much of the work. Ivan Chan fit quite well into this role, playing with an uncommonly rich and soaring tone whenever his part called for it. Cathy Meng Robinson, violin, Chauncey Patterson, viola, and Keith Robinson, cello, though often denied the melodic limelight, nevertheless performed with great attention to the details of the score. Most important, a discernable unity among the group was readily apparent, especially during the second movement, in which every long pause followed by a simultaneous entry happened with impressive precision.
To my surprise and delight, the central section of the third movement was one of the most expressively performed trios I have heard in recent memory, with sensitive rubato and treatment of dynamic levels serving to highlight a section that, in many works, sometimes sounds indiscernible from all the other powdered-wig dances of the period. The scurrying final movement was also remarkably clean, with each member of the quartet demonstrating admirable technique. Overall, my only two criticisms are that the repeat of the exposition in the first movement was ignored (more on this below) and that, in the Menuet, Chan may have occasionally over-stressed the anacrusis before each of the first two downbeats of the main theme, perhaps an attempt at rhythmic playfulness, but one that came off a bit puzzling.
After the "Lark," pianist Barbara McKenzie joined Chan, Patterson, and K. Robinson for Mozart's Piano Quartet in G Minor. How refreshing in this worldwide "Mozart Year" to hear something less well known from the Köchel catalogue! One of only two existent piano quartets by the composer, the work was commissioned in 1785 by the Viennese music publisher Franz Hoffmeister, and represents a relatively uncommon genre for the time.
Mozart seems to have approached the G-minor quartet as something of a miniature piano concerto: it has a first movement of substantial size, a lyrical second movement, and a rondo finale. Though marked Allegro, the ensemble commenced with a tempo that might more accurately be described as Allegro moderato and subsequently lost some of the commanding character of the opening bars. The overall spirit put forth by the players, however, was entirely in keeping with the different moods of this movement, which range from austere to carefree. McKenzie muddied a few of the more challenging scales with the pedal, but in general she handled the difficult piano part well; it is important to keep in mind that Mozart had a very different keyboard in mind when he set down a myriad of notes within two bars and then expected them to be executed without effort. The rondo was entertaining, of course, but for me the best playing came during the Andante; McKenzie and the MSQ members articulated phrasing that was tender but not maudlin and maintained a tempo that was somber but not tedious.
The second half of the program was devoted to Schumann's String Quartet in A Minor, and it was here the MSQ distinguished itself. These musicians bring out interesting things hidden in the score that other quartets might not notice: stressing surprising syncopations, emphasizing the subtle dissonance here and there, and always observing carefully every dynamic indication. In addition, as first demonstrated in the finale of the Haydn, this group plays very, very cleanly, making sure each individual note can be distinguished, even the galloping, repeated notes in the Scherzo. The only time my ears caught anything askew was in the third movement (Adagio): the violins were in unison an octave apart, which revealed a slight intonation conflict. Otherwise, the performance was outstanding.
Thus, it pains me to end with a negative remark. A word about ignoring repeats: the first movement of every work on this program, not surprisingly, is in that ubiquitous mold called sonata form. Inherent in the form is a repeat sign at the end of the exposition, a signal that was disregarded during every first movement during the concert. Great music, it has been said, teaches the listener how to listen, how to understand the unfolding of a movement and of a work. Hastily jumping from the exposition into the development, I feel, subverts the enjoyable process of digesting the main themes of a movement and, for the more sensitive ear, gaining a sense of key relationships. This deficiency was most apparent in the first movement of the Mozart where, in the recapitulation, the striking transposition of the secondary theme to the minor mode was probably missed by most in the hall, as they had not solidly identified the theme with a major mode to begin with. Furthermore, is there not a certain amount of contempt implied when skipping the repeat? Contempt for the audience ("no one will notice"), and surely some contempt for the composer? Observing the repeat signs would have asked us to devote another eight minutes of our lives to hearing some fine music and musicians. Ignoring them represented an unfortunate detraction from an otherwise memorable evening.
Full disclosure: Stuart Burnham also writes the program notes for the CMSW.