Philadelphia Chamber Music Society Presents Yet Another Superb Quartet

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Shostakovich, and Beethoven: Michelangelo String Quartet, Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 12.11.2015 (BJ)

Haydn: String Quartet in G major, Op. 77 No.1, Hob. III:81
Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 3, Op. 73
Beethoven: String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59 No. 3, “Razumovsky”

What’s in a name? Well, the prospect of hearing a group named, say, for four musicians called Smith, Brown, Jones, and Robinson would probably not set many listeners’ anticipatory imaginations on fire. But call yourselves the Michelangelo String Quartet, and dangerously high expectations are likely to result.

However that may be, I was happy at this, my first encounter with the 13-year-old ensemble, to find its ambitious choice of sobriquet by no means overweening. The Michelangelo is clearly yet another of the superb quartets currently before the public.

It’s comforting to see that there is some continuity in life. During the afternoon before this concert, unpacking a carton of scores, I came across the one of Michael Tippett’s Triple Concerto, which I reviewed at its world premiere in London in 1980. One of the soloists in that performance was Nobuko Imai—and here she was again, 35 years later, playing the viola as beautifully as ever, striking an ideal chamber-musical balance between discretion and assertiveness, and introducing the Russian theme in the third movement of the Beethoven quartet with characteristically firm and mahogany-tinted tone. Just as impressive was Mihaela Martin, deploying an unfailingly sweet sonority from top to bottom of the first-violin part and exercising leadership that was as strong as it was collegial. Second violinist Daniel Austrich and cellist Frans Helmerson filled their respective ranges in the texture with equal artistry, and dug into their sforzando repeated-note accompanimental figures in Beethoven’s first movement with fearsome vehemence.

The Beethoven performance deserves to be saluted first, because it was paced and executed with the utmost vividness of expression in the fast movements, and the climax of the Molto adagio attained to a rich and warm body of sound that it was hard to credit emanated from only four instruments. But the Michelangelo’s Haydn was also a reading of rhythmic poise, unforced clarity of tone and grace of phrasing, and ample stylistic insight. In between those two classics, Shostakovich’s Third Quartet made a welcome appearance on the program: like many of the composer’s fifteen works in the genre, it is as musically rewarding and emotionally draining a work as No. 8, which, like the relatively bland No. 1, is performed much more often. The players plumbed its depths compellingly. I hope my first experience of the Michelangelo String Quartet will not be my last.

Bernard Jacobson

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