A Quartet Too Exciting For Its Own Good

United StatesUnited States Szymanowski, Beethoven, and Schumann: Parker Quartet; Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 13.12.2015. (BJ)

Szymanowski: String Quartet in C major, Op. 37

Beethoven: String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95

Schumann: String Quartet in A minor,. Op. 41 No. 1

Perhaps I was simply string-quartetted-out. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society has presented so splendid an array of outstanding ensembles this season that perhaps it was inevitable that I should encounter one by which I was distinctly underwhelmed. In the course of its thirteen-year history, the Boston-based Parker Quartet has garnered any number of honors and impressed a great many critics enormously, but I fear I cannot join their number.

From the very first measures of the Szymanowski quartet that began the program, not only was precious little attention paid to the score’s softer dynamic markings—almost every line in the music was loud—but first violinist Daniel Chong’s tone displayed a disturbing inconsistency of timbre that may have stemmed from a tendency to let his bow wander almost ceaselessly from a position close up to the bridge almost to the finger-board. I must of course allow for the possibility that these peregrinations were undertaken out of set interpretative purpose, but if so, the result made little sense to my ears.

The most satisfying sounds from the group emanated from the instruments of second violinist Ying Xue, whose tone was at once expressive and admirably stable, and violist Jessica Bodner, who produced many passages of pleasantly nut-brown sonority. At various points in the program, Kee-Hyun Kim contributed some trenchant phrases, but at other times he seemed almost anonymous in musical character, and his extremely soft delivery of the pregnant descending phrase at the beginning of the Beethoven quartet’s slow movement was surely a too extreme interpretation of the score’s very moderate dynamic marking, which is merely mezza voce.

If only there had been more such instances of arguably too soft playing, the performances of the Beethoven and Schumann works would have been more enjoyable. (The Szymanowski is really a rather pointless piece of late-romantic noodling.) But for the most part the Parker’s dynamics inhabited the upper levels almost unrelievedly. The combination of this with their penchant for exceedingly fast tempos—such as a first-movement pace for the Beethoven that sounded less like the prescribed Allegro con brio than like a vertiginous Presto—resulted in movement after movement of terse and aggressive expostulations, with little poise in the slow movements to provide contrasting balm for the listener’s ear.

A similar extreme treatment of staccatos served only to redouble the breathless effect. Many years ago, Colin Davis expounded to me his belief that very short staccatos are well suited to music of the French repertoire, but that something less tightly “bitten off” is needed in the Austro-German classics—the last pages of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony were among the passages he cited for that necessity. It hardly needs saying that this is a personal view, but I have continued to find it cogent, and missed any corresponding insight in the Parker’s playing. There can be no gainsaying their capacity for virtuoso effects, or their dedication to performing the music in the way they passionately believe it should be done. I can only respectfully demur from a conception that took me back to my very youthful years as a beginning music listener. In those days, “exciting” was by far the most prominent word in my vocabulary of praise for a performance. By now it has been edged out of that position by far more subtle virtues. These Parker performances were exciting all the time—and nothing tends more toward the diminishing return of tedium than incessant and unvaried excitingness.

Bernard Jacobson

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