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The Britten Are Coming! The Brodsky Quartet Does Washington, cont. — by Jens Laurson
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 12:54 AM | Link to this article
Allegretto con slancio gets the pulse started right away. Britten achieves this very simply but effectively with one or more instruments playing a driving rhythm in the spiccato style. (Spiccato, saltando, sautillé, or even arpeggio: if a reader knows which exactly the Britten score calls for, I'd be interested in finding out.) The piece charms me reasonably well but leaves me less impressed than I had hoped it would. The Andante calmo starts beautifully with a gray, weeping melody: not so much fresh-cut tears but rather bitter resignation. It culminates in impotent rage before subsiding and letting the first violin whine along to the continuous, monotonous bows of its three companions. It remains enjoyable for these ears, but for several moments I find it distinctly lacking purpose. Towards what seems the end the andante climaxes nicely before pausing only to add a subtle and soft afterthought that gets picked up for another run—handing off to the once again prominent viola and expanding the natural lifespan of this movement by half. The puckish cello guides a similar but shorter rise to the andante's third life before a sustained light note on first violin actually ends it.

Molto vivace, the final movement, trades whimsy among the instruments but turns quickly into a hearty bout. Jacqueline Thomas and her cello raced while her three male colleagues on the smaller instruments performed similar musical patterns. "Carefree" is the word that I conjured immediately. Speed-demon-like pizzicati interspersed with intense and chromatically bent exultations by force of "instrument-scrubbing" ended the piece abruptly and well, leading to generous applause.

Franz Schubert's "Rosamunde" String Quartet in A Minor (D. 804) was next. The opening Allegro ma non troppo was amiably, though not perfectly, played; although very satisfactory, it lasts forever. The Andante finally arrived and left the impression of a children's mobile. Menuetto: Allegretto and Allegro moderato rounded out this half of the program with admirable playing but ultimately remained uninspiring. The word was "nice" or "quaint" in its more negative connotation.

After the break it was Tchaikovsky's String Quartet no. 1 in D major, op. 11, that awaited the audience. A very smooth and gliding beginning was gentle enough but not boring and ready to pick up speed or energy or both along the way. A rather full sound was summoned from the players. In several moments the first violins' uncleanliness bugged me. With little new material or ideas introduced, the piece babbled along just fine until it got a little excited toward the end of the first movement. For the most part it seemed best just to sit back and casually enjoy a (surprisingly?) nice and long string quartet that is amiable but soon exposes itself as one of the lesser works by maestro "Petr Il'ich Chaikovskii" as his name might be spelled more accurately. The Andante cantabile, like its predecessor, starts out most amiably. Mr. Haveron's three-year-old violin (by Polish master violin-builder Zygmuntowicz, who also made the Emerson String Quartet's instruments) sounds lush and thick even through the entirely muted sections of this movement. The five-note theme (made up of three distinct notes) that makes the core of this work is shared among the instruments to intone a lament.

The Scherzo: Allegro non tanto e con fuoco enjoyably worked its way toward the end of the evening. A fine evening for sure, but almost certain not to entail an encore. In brevity lies the soul of wit—the scherzo stayed true to its name. Allegro giusto is the finale's marking. Unlike the sometimes excruciatingly slow Schubert earlier, the Brodsky Quartet went to work on these parts as though they just remembered that their cars were parked in the no-parking zone. They seemed to get more into the piece, and with them went I. The finale is perhaps not quite ravishing, but a consoling finish. A faux ending: soft recapitulation of previously stated material and a very soft line led to a finishing frenzy in highest tempi and reasonably rousing applause.

After the concert, which was fine but ultimately disappointing for lack of energy and excitement, everyone in my company disagreed with each other. Britten was the only good thing; no, it was horrific. The Tchaikovsky was astounding; no, it was pleasant at best. The Schubert was stupendous; no, it put me to sleep. What is true is that the Britten, as nice a piece as I find it to be, is probably not of the same quality as some other modern string quartets. More importantly, it was not played with the passion and excitement that would communicate to a Britten neophyte why and how to like it. The performance of the Brodsky Quartet was good enough to please those who know the work, but miles away from making converts. But not every concert can be conscious-altering and life-changing. Sometimes "good" has got to be "good enough."

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Ysaÿe Something You Don't See!, cont. — by Jens Laurson
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 10:56 AM | Link to this article
The Menuetto that follows is notably faster (Allegretto) and more animated and doesn't seem to be much of a break with the Adagio—in part because it moves from one movement to the other without pause—but mostly because both are clearly cut from the same cloth or, more appropriately, carved from the same stone. Without an internal metronome I cannot check into overlapping rhythm patterns that might contribute to this noticeable effect. The Finale, Adagio again, then Presto and Adagio once more, is more determined. A self-assuring, assertive cello line introduces it, and violins dance on top of upward figures from the viola and cello. This is as close as a string quartet (particularly its first violin) gets to singing. Chamber music at its finest. Engaging, lovely, charming without a hint of being boring or tiring. For me, that isn't necessarily a given with chamber music from that period, no matter who the composer. The Presto is fun: short, accentuated, and driving strings race for a few seconds until the cello paternalistically calls them back to order with its low upward figure. The others jump back into place, and the Finale continues and ends much as it began.

Following the Haydn, much applause, and tuning, came the Webern. For me, these are the "must-hear" pieces. Given how they are wedged between the Haydn and the Schumann, the same is true for every other listener, alas, I imagine, with a rather different meaning. Webern could probably be better described by someone more erudite than I. I, however, cannot and shan't make much more of an attempt than by saying that Heftig bewegt, the first movement of his Fünf Stücke für Streichquartett (Five Movements for String Quartet), op. 5, is musical entomology for strings, with all its bugs and beetles crawling, jumping, plucking, in both anarchy and spontaneous order.

Sehr langsam stayed true to its name, and the crowd's reaction to it was one of continued unrest. The playing began inaudibly and so it ended. Most sentences describing it would be longer than the thirteen bars it measures.

Sehr bewegt crawls again, with slightly more aggression, lasts a few seconds (roughly thirty) and is supplanted by another Sehr langsam movement. Between squeaking shoes, seat readjustment, and surprisingly little coughing, I could barely hear it from behind my pillar. Towards the end, it contained the gentlest pizzicatos I have heard in a long time. What a contrast to the Takács Quartet's merciless maltreatment of their instruments in Bartók's Fourth String Quartet, experienced just a few days prior at the Freer Gallery!

In zarter Bewegung (In gentle motion) is the fifth and last movement. Gently sweeping, it lets one instrument carry a phrase to another where the other then joins it in emphasizing the phrase. The whole undertaking is the opposite of something like a Bartók or Shostakovich string quartet. It is intensely private (as opposed to personal, which Shostakovich's and Bartók's quartets are, just as much), fragile, gentle, shy even, without any of the brute force, the dynamics, acrobatics, and raw energy of his Slavic colleagues. The piece ends almost whimsically, and the crowd dared not applaud until a good five seconds after the last note, when my semiresolute but enthusiastic first clap broke the spell. Even if confusion was the cause for the silence and not awe, it is very nice to have a piece of music linger in the air rather than applause trampling it immediately. The applause, in any case, didn't exactly trample. Unsurprisingly short and dry, it ceased even before François Salque peaked from behind the curtain for the first time.

Intermission saw quite a few audience members fail to return, as they in turn probably saw Anton Webern making a return onto the program. After all, the first piece after the break threatened to be Sechs Bagatellen für Streichquartett (Six Bagatelles for String Quartet), op. 9. A few seats were now available where before a few dozen listeners had to sit outside the hall. The Bagatelles started with Mäßig and few new friends among the audience members. At one point the movement seemed to shudder in the upper register, and before I can find the words to describe this, I found myself already listening to Leicht bewegt. Once again, some of the softest passages are hard or impossible to hear, which would be less so in a regular chamber concert environment. More so, it would not be as necessary to hear everything if one could only see the players in action. (I think of the beginning of Bruckner’s 5th Symphony live, for example, where you more sense than actually hear that the music is under way.) Of course, in the West Garden Court more than two-thirds of the audience have a partly or wholly obstructed view and can therefore not follow all of the action.

The pieces Ziemlich fließend, Sehr langsam, Äußerst langsam, and Fließend flowed by me almost undetected. The same goes for the applause, which is unfortunate, as the playing was involved and the pieces, thorny as they may be, are very much worth hearing. Especially in such loving executions.

For most, however, it was Schumann to the rescue! The String Quartet no. 3 in A Major, op. 41, to be precise. It clearly exists to console those who had withstood the temptation to leave, and console it does. Less flowing, less natural than the half-century-older Haydn work, it is still very amiable "string-quartetting." Andante espessivo; Allegro molto moderato offers some cello excursions that remind me of Schumann’s String Quintet (Marcy Rosen and "her bat" from the Library of Congress concert come to mind). Extraordinarily quaint, the Assai agitato has similar mechanical, somehow abrupt figures that move forward as though taking a quick step and stopping momentarily before taking the next step. Even when more notes fill some of the gaps, there is neither the smooth progression, nor the beating, rhythmic, and driving quality of a Bartók quartet. The jagged, almost stuttering procession becomes less, or less noticeable. The cello soon strikes upon a lovely melody it keeps for a while and then trades with the other voices. After a milder phase, the piece wakes up and gathers splendid momentum that kicks the whole quartet up a few gears. Tremendously enjoyable, not just quaint.

The Adagio molto, for a few notes, brought back the Haydn second movement. Less singing, it doesn't have the same effect though. Just in time for the Finale: Allegro molto vivace, my mind returned from excursions (a few missed goals playing soccer earlier in the day) to the music. Palpably more energetic, this movement is a great way to be allowed back into the night. A heavy, almost clumsily hefty, and thumping drive eventually subdues short little bits of light melody that, even couched in sweet sound, become rather tiresome rather quickly. Vox Populi has the Schumann declared the favorite, nonetheless.

Nitpicking about Schumann's quartet—inferior to Haydn's as it may be—aside, the playing was as engaged and enthusiastic as one could ask for. The Haydn was a clear winner, and not since the Kodály Quartet had a "mostly Haydn" program to offer at the Library of Congress (see the Ionarts review from November 11, 2003), did I enjoy the late master's chamber works so effortlessly. The Webern was a wonderful way of being acquainted with intimate, elusive pieces that are, for all their similarities, such an incredible contrast to other 20th-century compositions for string quartet. With some very exciting concerts coming up at the National Gallery and great string quartets coming to the Library of Congress, the next months will be an assured continuation of the Washington, D.C., free chamber music bonanza that I so heartily enjoy.

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Brodsky Quartet at the Library of Congress, cont. — by Charles T. Downey
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 12:02 AM | Link to this article
The audience reacted with enthusiastic applause to this work, which violist Paul Cassidy acknowledged by speaking during the pause before the second piece. As it turns out, this is the first time that the Brodsky Quartet has been to Washington, and they have spent the past few days seeing the sights and appreciating the city. He noted that many great composers were violists (Mozart, Haydn, Schubert), to the chagrin of his fellow players, but then he connected that statement to the piece in question with a personal anecdote. He recounted that in 1843, in Milan, Francesco Guissani had made a viola, which was purchased from its first owner by English violist and composer Frank Bridge, who was Britten's teacher and a frequent recipient of Mrs. Coolidge's commissions. As Mr. Cassidy recounted, Bridge was at the end of his career and feared that he might not see his most famous student again, so he managed to board Britten's ship to the United States before it departed and left the viola on his bed. (Britten, like Bridge, played the viola. See Ross Charnock's article Benjamin Britten, altiste [Benjamin Britten, violist], in the Bulletin des Amis de L'Alto France in 2001.) Later, Peter Pears loaned the violin to Mr. Cassidy for him to play, and that was the viola that Mr. Cassidy played here on Friday night. (The Brodsky Quartet has also recently recorded the other two Britten string quartets, in May 2003.)

The second piece on the program was Franz Schubert's String Quartet in A Minor, D. 804, called the "Rosamunde." The first movement (Allegro ma non troppo) has a melancholy main theme, accompanied in the second violin by what Tomás Hernández identified in the program notes as a motive that "recalls Gretchen am Sprinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) from Goethe's Faust, his breakthrough song dating from 1814." (That song is D. 118, and here is the text in German and English.) I don't know how Schubert was so often able to create accompanying patterns that evoke poetic images so well: think of the sounds of the mill in the opening song (Das Wandern [Wandering]) of his song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795 (in English, The Fair Miller-Maid), for example. Gretchen's motive really does sound like a spinning wheel, and it does indeed appear in this quartet.

Typical for Schubert, this movement's grandeur went on and on, seeming to repeat endlessly. The quartet's nickname comes from the second movement (Andante), whose main theme comes from the composer's incidental music for a play that failed in the previous year, Helmina von Chézy's Rosamunde, Furstin von Cypern. The third movement (Menuetto: Allegretto) has a strange introduction, quite unminuetlike in my opinion. This opening is derived, I am told, from Schubert's song Die Götter Griechenlands (The gods of Greece), D. 677 (poem by Friedrich Schiller), to the words "Fair world, where art thou?" (here is the song's text, in German and English). The movement then becomes more dancelike, especially in the trio. The fourth movement (Allegro moderato) has a chipper theme, as Schubert optimistically shifts the quartet's tonality to A major for his conclusion. The Brodsky Quartet showed off some of its most technically demanding fast playing here.

For the concert's final piece, the Brodsky Quartet returned to its 2002 CD to play Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's String Quartet no. 1 in D Major, op. 11. This piece left me somewhat cold, especially the first and last movements which seem to have been dashed off and consist of little more than flashy pyrotechnics. (Indeed, according to Tchaikovsky specialists, the composer produced this quartet in a short amount of time for a special concert he was asked to give.) These virtuosic sections were played admirably by the Brodsky Quartet: the prestissimo coda of the fourth movement rondo, in particular, was blindingly fast. The third movement (Allegro non tanto e con fuoco) is a folksy scherzo and trio that has a pleasing, lilting triple-meter dance feel to it. However, the jewel of this quartet, and really the only reason to play or listen to it is the second movement (Andante cantabile). As Tomás Hernández tells the story in the program notes:
The Quartet made its successful debut at the concert that took place on March 16, 1871. What particularly impressed the audience was the second movement Andante cantabile based on a folk song, "Sidel Vanya," that Tchaikovsky had heard being sung by a peasant outside his window. In December 1876 the Quartet was performed at a concert for the author Leo Tolstoy, in Moscow on a rare visit from his plantation. In his diary the composer recalls: "Perhaps never in my life . . . has my composer's pride been so flattered and moved, as when L. Tolstoy, sitting beside me and listening to the Andante of my first quartet, burst into tears."
As you might expect, anything that made Tolstoy cry is worth ten minutes of your time. The historical importance of folk song in Russian music, indeed in music of most of eastern Europe, is an interesting subject, and this instance of it certainly seemed to move the Russian writer. The song is apparently Ukrainian in origin, and Tchaikovsky likely heard it during a visit to his sister who lived in the country. From what I've been able to find about this song, its text is about a peasant, Vanya, sitting up late at night on his sofa and smoking and drinking, drowning his sorrow and dreaming of a better life. The melody is modal and a little strange, which requires Tchaikovsky to put together some unusual harmonies to accompany it. He also uses a more refined melody of his own composition to contrast with the folk song. This movement was beautifully played, perhaps not as sentimentally as possibly, maybe even with a little distance, but beautifully. There is a reason that this piece has been arranged for orchestra and many other instrumental combinations. Tchaikovsky outdid himself.

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In the Cut (DVD), cont. — by Todd Babcock
Contributed by Charles T. Downey at 10:04 AM | Link to this article
Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count On Me, The Last Castle) has been given outrageously high praise: that he is "the next Brando" and "the future of acting" (I’m not kidding: see this article in The Guardian from last November). What I found brave was not only his unapologetic performance but also that he quite publicly noted that he found it only with Campion's guiding hand. While it would be easy for a young actor to bask in the praise and nod quietly in acknowledgment of his greatness, Ruffalo was quite frank that he didn't think he could do the role and was often coached back into form. The result is a trust in his persona over indicating to the audience that you should like the guy. By all accounts, when we see Detective Malloy on the screen we practically want to scream to "our Meg," Get out of there! It's this space, which Ruffalo allows, that pays off when we are finally allowed into his past.

Campion has said that she wanted to create a piece that was more a throwback to the 70s style of filmmaking, where the character was the story. She has succeeded in this endeavor and, maybe unfortunately, the story of our deranged serial killer seems to take a back seat. While, as an actor, I am more than pleased to forgive this fault and become entranced with the visceral reality that these artists have created, I can see why reviewers and audiences felt a bit left out on a full movie.

In recent years we have been witnessing actors who have achieved a certain iconic status suddenly pare down their personae for something that is perhaps closer to themselves. About Schmidt won Jack Nicholson numerous awards, more for what he didn't do onscreen than what he did. In this year's Lost in Translation, we may see another icon following suit, in that Bill Murray feathered that film with a whisper of what we know he can do. While Meg Ryan is by no means muted or fractional in this movie, it is a far more naked and unpolished performance than I think she's ever given. (The closest is Flesh and Bone, with then-husband Dennis Quaid. One can also see a pre-"Gwynnie" Paltrow in fine form.)

The world of In The Cut shows the mundane, earthly beauty that New York has to offer (it was shot entirely on location). Campion creates a color-saturated filth that is a haze for female survivors (the exquisite Jennifer Jason Leigh) and male hostility (Kevin Bacon in an unbilled role for all you movie-gamers), where poetry literally finds its way through all the cracks. While many don't see their nights off at the cinema or their queue on Netflix as an opportunity for professionals to "attempt" anything (by all means, since we don't pay a plumber to guess how to fix a pipe), I'd argue that these artists make failure far more compelling than most successes.

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