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Daedalus, in ancient mythology, was renowned as a craftsman, a tinkerer, an inventor. The European Romantics painted Daedalus as the icon of classical reserve and restraint, in contrast to his headstrong son Icarus.
This classical quality was on display Sunday afternoon when the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild presented Daedalus’ namesake, the Daedalus Quartet, in the final concert of the 2013–14 Masters Series at the Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh. (There is still one concert remaining in the Sights & Sounds on Sundays, presented at the NC Museum of Art.)
As first violinist Min-Young Kim* announced from the stage, the matinee program was a welcome for spring, a season the Quartet’s members were happy to be enjoying in North Carolina. Their first selection, three of Henry Purcell’s four-part fantasias, were pleasures rarely heard played by a string quartet. Purcell’s fantasias were written for a viol consort, a family of string instruments that predates the violin family. Viols are fretted instruments, thus prohibiting vibrato; the Daedalus players adjusted their playing appropriately. Additionally, in order to recall the style of viol playing, the musicians did not slur any notes and were sparing with ornamentation, evoking a plain style. Leaving out vibrato and slurring did not deaden the music, however, and the decision to program Purcell rescues his elegant compositions from the domain of “early music specialists.”
The Purcell selections were paired with Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 25, written during Britten’s stay in the U.S. The quartet, commissioned by and dedicated to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (who also commissioned works by Prokofiev, Bartók, Schoenberg, and Copland), is a sterling example of Britten’s lucid, complex, and melodic style. The quartet’s opening followed beautifully after the Purcell fantasias, in a way taking Purcell’s suspensions as an unresolved theme. The black backdrop afforded the audience an opportunity to see the intensity of the artists' playing, as rosin was flying off bows in small clouds. The second movement’s opening was a visual spectacle, with the different musicians trading an accent figure over an ostinato. Britten is often spoken of in terms of his old-fashioned diatonicism in the face of his contemporary atonal modernism. This bald statement does not reduce Britten to simplicity or nostalgia but does highlight his musical uniqueness. The melodies of the third and fourth movements, diatonic in nature, were astonishing; the tone clusters behind the melodies were equally surprising and enjoyable. The program fit Britten’s music well, framing him between an earlier English composer – Purcell – and a later composer – Beethoven – who was also known for occasionally spun-out melodies.
Beethoven’s late string quartets are complex creatures, defying conventional notions of melody, harmony, and form. His Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130, falls into that style, and at points the Daedalus Quartet was clearly enjoying the music, bringing some levity to quartets often noted for their seriousness. Of special note were the typical Beethoven crescendos to a sudden softer dynamic, which are peppered throughout the quartet. The first movement’s ending offered a perfect interplay between the second violin and viola, and movements two through four presented an economy of notes in more traditional forms. The fifth movement, titled “Cavatina,” shows Beethoven as a “frustrated opera composer,” as some music historians refer to him. The long, spun-out violin melody was subdued, with perfect shape and structure. The musicians chose to replace the quartet’s finale with Beethoven’s Große Fuge, Op. 133, originally composed as the finale for Op. 130. The Große Fuge is Beethoven at his harshest; in the 2006 film Copying Beethoven, this piece prompts the composer to ask, “Of course it’s ugly, but is it beautiful?” The Daedalus Quartet brought their most intense poise to this music, communicating Beethoven’s wildness – disjunct melodies, dense counterpoint, chromatic harmonies – with a sense of urgency. At the outset, the juxtaposition of the harsh theme with the gentle theme was particularly profound, showing the two themes as transformations of each other. The audience was offered a lighter respite as an encore: the scherzo from Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet, Op. 33, No. 2. An unwritten accelerando in the repeat of the trio was a special treat, giving the scherzo it’s special “joke” flavor.
The Daedalus Quartet gives their name credence by their programming and playing; their graceful bearing and polished communication brought new insights into four different centuries of string music.