United States Wolf, Whitehead, Verdi, and Tchaikovsky: Ensō String Quartet, Dimitri Murrath (viola), Peter Wiley (cello), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 20.4.2015 (BJ)
Wolf: Italian Serenade
Whitehead: No stars, not even clouds (Philadelphia premiere)
Verdi: String Quartet in E minor
Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence in D major, Op. 70
The freshness of approach for which the Ensō String Quartet has developed a reputation over the past 16 years made itself apparent at once in an unusually vividly characterized performance of Wolf’s Italian Serenade. This is a piece that often sounds a tad humdrum, but it responded well both to the players’ incisive and well-contrasted tone, and to their penchant for making the most of the score’s pauses, whether marked or implied, with all the variety of pacing that their observance promotes.
Performing at the Perelman Theater, violinists Maureen Nelson and Ken Hamao, violist Melissa Reardon, and cellist Richard Belcher were no less tellingly contrasted in Verdi’s solitary String Quartet: it was played with often exciting virtuosity by all four, and cellist Belcher in particular deployed notably rich and expressive tone. Between these two works from the Romantic period was the Philadelphia premiere of No stars, not even clouds, by Dame Gillian Whitehead, who was born in Hamilton, New Zealand, in 1941, and now divides her time between her native country and Australia. Written for the Ensō String Quartet in 2012 in memory of the composer’s friend Juanita Ketchel, a writer and oral historian, it is a very well put together piece. Without ever degenerating into avant-garde mannerism, it employs a few relatively modern techniques in the cogent context of a predominantly tonal harmonic language, with a few echoes of birdsong thrown in, and it was a pleasure to listen to.
Michael Tree, one of the finest chamber-music violists of our time, and his equally talented cellist colleague Peter Wiley were scheduled to join the Ensōs after intermission for Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. It was a disappointment to hear that Tree was prevented by illness from appearing, but Dimitri Murrath, who replaced him, had already made a strong artistic impression just a month earlier as second violist in a Rubens Quartet performance of Brahms’s Sextet No. 2 in G major, and the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society was fortunate to have been able to secure his services for this return appearance.
It’s interesting that the Souvenir, an unusually sunny work for its often lugubriously inclined composer, never seems to receive any but excellent performances. This one was far from spoiling that record in my experience, the four quartet members and their two colleagues bringing the evening to a rousing close with kaleidoscopic variety of tone and an admirable blend of warmth and brilliance.