More Memorable Mendelssohn, from the Johannes Quartet

United StatesUnited States Mendelssohn, Bartók, and Dvořák: Johannes Quartet, Harold Robinson (double bass), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 20.11.2014 (BJ)

Mendelssohn: Quartet in F minor, Op. 80
Bartók: Quartet No. 6
Dvořák: Quintet in G major, Op. 77


Yet another fine string quartet featured two of the same composers we heard from the Quatuor Ébène just a week earlier—Dvořák was the new man on this program—and once again the performances fully met the expectations of excellence associated with Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presentations.

 Written 20 years after the A-minor Quartet played by the Ébènes, Mendelssohn’s F-minor Quartet was his last major work, composed when he was still suffering under the impact of his beloved sister Fanny’s death in May 1847, and shortly before his own untimely death. Impressively passionate as that earlier quartet is, Opus 80 surpasses it with an emotional intensity virtually unequaled in his oeuvre, or perhaps in the entire chamber music repertoire.

 After such a storm of feverish desperation, even such a work as Bartók’s profoundly introverted sixth and last quartet could seem a relatively lightweight piece, but the Johannes Quartet’s performances unerringly located the expressive heart of each work. Soovin Kim, successor to founding member Robert Chen as the quartet’s first violinist, may possibly have lost a soupçon of the tonal bloom and warmth that I remember from such performances as a stunning one of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata that he gave with Jeremy Denk in a much earlier PCMS season, but the tensile strength and elasticity of his line are certainly unimpaired, and his attack on multiple stops was positively searing in its combined power and accuracy.

Second violinist Jessica Lee, who impressed me deeply at the Olympic Music Festival in Washington State a few years ago, served as the ideal foil to Kim’s flashing sonority, her strength on the G string providing a welcome solidity in the ensemble’s middle register. Given the prominence allotted to his instrument in the Bartók work, violist Choong-Jin Chang played with appropriately plangent grace, and cellist Peter Stumpf offered a bass line that was impeccably solid even in soft dynamics.

 For the Dvořák quintet after intermission, Stumpf’s contribution was reinforced by some warm and finely pointed double bass playing by Harold Robinson, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s principal on that instrument. The charming piece, which was played in its familiar form without the long-lost additional movement that resurfaced a few years ago, was an excellent choice to conclude this program—a third work as emotionally taxing as the first two would have provided altogether too much anguish for one evening.

Bernard Jacobson