Two Groups in Two Views of One Janáček Quartet

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Janáček, Brahms, Golijov, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky: Rubens Quartet, Dimitri Murrath (viola), ECCO, Judi Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Perelman Theater, Philadelphia, 19-20.3.2015 (BJ)

Rubens Quartet, Dimitri Murrath (viola), Judi Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, 19.3.2015

Beethoven: String Quartet in D major, Op. 18 No. 3

Janáček: String Quartet No. 1, Kreutzer Sonata

Brahms: String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36

ECCO, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 20.3.2015 (BJ)
Golijov: Last Round
Sibelius: Canzonetta, Op. 62a
Janáček: String Quartet No. 1, Kreutzer Sonata (arr. ECCO)
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings, Op. 48

On successive days, these two Philadelphia Chamber Music Society programs offered a rare opportunity to hear Janáček’s highly original and dramatic First String Quartet, inspired by Tolstoy’s novel The Kreutzer Sonata, first in its original form as conceived by the composer, and then in a string-orchestra arrangement devised collectively by ECCO (the conductor-less and democratically run East Coast Chamber Orchestra).

The experience was illuminating. In the ECCO version, with eighteen players delivering much of the work, while soloists from among their ranks executed the frequent passages of rapid, almost hysterical figuration as solos, the music took on the characteristic tutti/solo interweaving of the classical concerto form. Strongly played, it was pleasant enough to listen to, but, rather like the oboe concerto that the Australian composer Arthur Benjamin arranged years ago from harpsichord pieces by Cimarosa, there was an essential distortion of form involved in the whole process.

Certainly the classical concerto is a fundamentally dramatic form, expressing the fascinating relationship between the individual and the many. But Janáček’s quartet presents a quite different kind of drama, in which the individual elements inhabit the same medium as the framing sections, and to mix the two kinds of interplay inevitably ends by blurring the focus of this superb composition. (Mozart showed that he had a surer understanding of form even at the early age of 16, when, in arranging some keyboard sonatas by J.C. Bach as concertos, he prefaced the first movements with modest orchestral ritornellos to transform each original sonata form into a structure suitable for a concerto.)

That focus could hardly have been clearer than it was in the impassioned performance given on the previous evening by the youthful Rubens Quartet. They flanked the Janáček with works by Beethoven and Brahms that drew similarly committed and expert playing from violinists Sarah Kapustin and Giles Francis, violist Roeland Jagers, and cellist Joachim Eijlander.

They were joined after intermission by Brussels-born violist Dimitri Murrath and American cellist Judith Serkin, both of whom provided tellingly individual and expressive contributions of their own to the ensemble. But inevitably, given Brahms’s deployment of instrumental resources in his Second Sextet, Eijlander, the Rubens’s own Dutch cellist, took the spotlight at least in the early stages of the first movement. His tone and phrasing in many passages, and especially in the subordinate theme that is surely one of the most gorgeous tunes Brahms ever wrote, was impressive equally for its firmness, its beauty, and its expressive power. But happily, when the theme was taken over in the recapitulation by violist Jagers and first violinist Kapustin, there was no diminution in the standard of the playing, while, throughout the program, Goldberg was no less effective in the individuality he found in the second violin part.

ECCO’s program the following evening similarly located its classical/romantic high point after intermission, with a brilliantly played and tonally sumptuous account of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. The supreme elegance of the second movement Waltz was especially well served by these accomplished players, whose tautness of ensemble speaks well for the discipline of their conductor-less method of rehearsal and performance.

My reservations about the whole idea of arranging the Janáček quartet aside, I enjoyed the first half of ECCO’s program too. Osvaldo Goliojov’s Last Round, a tribute to Astor Piazzolla of tango fame, was played with all the intensity its intricate textures demand, and a sensitive performance of Sibelius’s Canzonetta made a welcome change from relatively frequent hearings of the better-known—though perhaps also better—Valse triste, with which it shares its origin in the set of incidental music the composer wrote for Arvid Järnevelt’s play Kuolema.

 Bernard Jacobson

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