A Young String Quartet of the Utmost Mastery

29/01/2018

Haydn, Webern, Brahms:  Roberto Díaz (viola), Peter Wiley (cello), Zorá String Quartet, Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 21.1.2018. (BJ)

Haydn – String Quartet in F minor Op.20 No.5 Hob.III.35
Webern Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement)
Brahms – String Sextet No.1 in B flat major, Op.18

This was a perfectly stunning concert. Philadelphia’s fortunate chamber-music enthusiasts are accustomed to encountering one fine string quartet after another under the auspices of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and I have myself benefitted from this largesse many times over in the years I have lived in the city. But I cannot recall one occasion when the satisfactions of the evening or afternoon surpassed those provided by this appearance of the youthful Zorá String Quartet (whose title is Bulgarian for ‘sunrise’), currently the graduate quartet-in-residence at the Curtis Institute of Music.

The Zorás — violinists Dechopol Kowintaweewat and Hsuan-Hao Hsu, violist Pablo Muñoz Salido, and cellist Zizai Ning — certainly know how to build a well-balanced and musically substantial program, in this instance drawing one work each from the 18th, 20th, and 19th centuries. Their performances, moreover, were at once stylistically well informed, technically immaculate, and ravishingly rich and beautiful in sonority. Their textures seduced with an ideal balance of linear clarity with cohesive blend. Abetted visually by the frequent exchange of rapid glances between the players, there was a vivid sense in the more contrapuntal passages that each phrase was naturally propelling and illuminating the next one.

The quartet unerringly captured the character, at once questing and assured, of one of Haydn’s least familiar masterpieces, which typifies his inveterate gift for combining, especially in the concluding ‘fugue on two subjects’, smoothly deployed learning with sheer fun.

Webern’s Slow Movement, written in 1905 and rediscovered a few years ago after being long unpublished, was played with a grace of phrasing that achieved more sheer beauty than I am used to ascribing to the composer. Rather like the ‘Study’ Symphony that Bruckner wrote before any of the works that now constitute his established canon — a piece that very successfully evokes the spirit of Schubert — this early essay is evidence that the composer’s subsequent turning away from his stylistic beginnings to embrace more idiosyncratic formal methods was not due to any inability to write good music in the traditional manner, but rather to an obvious wish to ‘make it new.’

For the first of Brahms’s two string sextets, the Quartet was joined by violist Roberto Díaz, president and director of Curtis, and Peter Wiley, who teaches cello there. It is both impressive and heartwarming to see (and hear) that the director’s administrative responsibilities are clearly not keeping him away from practicing: his playing, like Wiley’s, was on a level of artistry fully compatible with that of the Zorás, and the Sextet sumptuously lived up to its place among my favorite Brahms works.

Bernard Jacobson

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