No Signs of World-Weariness in a Quartet’s Delightful Haydn

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Reger, and Schoenberg: Orion String Quartet, Peter Serkin (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 20.2.2015 (BJ)

Haydn: String Quartet in C major, Op. 50 No. 2
Reger: Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 133
Haydn: String Quartet in F major, Op. 77 No. 2
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (arr. Webern)

Despite having been in existence for 28 years, the Orion String Quartet happily shows no sign of the slight world-weariness that can begin to vitiate the work of even so eminent an ensemble as the Amadeus Quartet: in their third and fourth decades, the members of that group sounded as if they had played the great works of the repertoire just too many times. The Orion’s Daniel and Todd Phillips, Steven Tenenbom, and Timothy Eddy must have played the Haydn quartets frequently, yet their performances of Op. 50 No. 2 and Op. 77 No. 2 at this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert sounded utterly fresh.

This was especially evident in the later work’s minuet, really a scherzo in all but name, where it was all I could do to refrain from laughing out loud as they tossed the pervasive cross-accents impudently from one line to another. Of the Phillips brothers, Todd took the first-violin chair for this quartet, and Daniel had occupied it for the Opus 50 work, both proving to be consummate leaders, with strong personalities that yet never relegated the equally telling contributions of Steven Tenenbom on viola and Timothy Eddy on cello.

I did wonder whether the program might have been even more satisfying if each half had been played in reverse order. As a general rule, greater music should follow, not precede, lesser works. It would have been a particular delight to go home with the sounds of Haydn in my head, rather than those of Schoenberg’s somewhat rebarbative First Chamber Symphony. Nevertheless, hearing Webern’s arrangement of the piece for piano quintet, with some modifications by the pianist of the evening, Peter Serkin, was illuminating: in this scoring, the more astringent dissonances inseparable from the original’s woodwind instruments are smoothed away, and the piece consequently sounded more agreeable than usual.

In sympathetic partnership with the fine Orion players, Serkin was his usual elegant, expressive, and intellectually probing self both in the Schoenberg work and in Reger’s Piano Quartet No. 2, a late composition of characteristic technical polish and a fair degree of charm, which I was glad to encounter for the first time. And I am prepared for once not to berate the quartet with my usual complaint when composers’ requests for repeats are disregarded, in the context of a program that ran for a full two hours and twenty minutes even without them.

Bernard Jacobson

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