Amid the hustle and bustle of the midday rush in downtown Charlotte, there was an oasis to be found within the historic walls of St. Peter's Episcopal Church. People working in the banking district could easily have attended this delightful but short lunchtime offering on January 3, and many did. To my surprise, the church was filled almost to capacity as the Chamber Music at St. Peter's series continued with "Great Quartet Movements" performed by a group of first-rate artists: violinists Nicole Cherry and Jacqui Carrasco, violist Scott Rawls, and Allen Black, Principal Cello of the Charlotte Symphony. The program was basically a survey of quartet movements from the classical era to the modern period. After a few brief remarks by series director Black, the program began.
Brahms published the two quartets of Opus 51 in 1873 after having toiled over them for many years. The ensemble performed the first movement of the Second String Quartet, in A Minor. In this movement, Brahms uses the motto of his close friend Joseph Joachim as a thematic element. The motto, "Frei aber einsam" (F A E), means "Free but alone." It is a heavily concentrated piece that requires a certain tightness to be effective. This group, having never performed together before, had a shaky start; there was an awkwardness and a lack of rhythmic control that lasted throughout the first section. In the second section, however, the violins began with such beautiful passagework that Brahms' brooding romanticism was brought back into focus. After having warmed up, the group held the piece together nicely, ending it with verve and panache. I might add that the acoustics of the hall seem quite well suited for the chamber repertoire.
The next work on the program was the first movement of Mozart's Quartet in d minor, K.421. The piece is a part of a set of six string quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn. It is, interestingly enough, the only one of the set written in a minor key, and it is the most tragic of the six. I was immediately surprised at the fast tempo that the ensemble used to present the opening theme; it seemed to obscure the gloominess that hangs over the falling octaves. As a matter of fact, the fast tempi continued throughout the piece, glossing over distinct inner voices, and ending before one had the opportunity to relish Mozart's sadness. The group played with great accuracy, and it was clear that the artists are masters of their instruments, but this is music that could have lingered longer and been savored more.
After the less than satisfying performance of the Mozart, the ensemble hit full stride with the second movement of Ravel's String Quartet. It was an incredible performance. Black played with especially flashy virtuosity in the tricky pizzicato sections. If you closed your eyes you could almost imagine Spanish dancers whirling about to the rhythms and flowing melodies emanating from the stage. For the first time during this concert, the group reached perfect symbiosis. It was as if they had playing together for years — and were having fun doing it! The audience responded to this selection's humorous ending with a hearty laugh and uproarious applause. It was a reading that made one regret that the entire work had not been played.
The finale of the concert was the treacherous opening movement of Beethoven's First "Razumovsky" Quartet (Op. 59, no. 1), in F. The players showed an unusual elasticity that actually helped hold the sonata-like structure of the piece together. This is perhaps the most difficult task in a performance of this work — because of its varied elements and sometimes-convoluted themes. The piece was played with imagination and passion; the flowing melodic lines rose like incense to the antiquated rafters of old St. Peter's. I and surely others, too, had a desire to remain wrapped in Beethoven's spell and avoid the inevitable return to the daily grind, but after the brilliant conclusion of this program we were released.
I cannot think of a better way to spend a lunch break than with the great masters of the quartet and the interpreters who bring them to life.
For remaining concerts in the 10th anniversary season of Chamber Music at St. Peter's, click here.
*We are pleased to welcome Joseph Hartman to CVNC. The Morganton resident is particularly interested in keyboard performances but his knowledge is wide-ranging.