Unanimity and Grace from Richard Woodhams and the Orion

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Kirchner, and Beethoven: Orion String Quartet, Richard Woodhams (oboe), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10.1.2016. (BJ)

Mozart: Oboe Quartet, K. 370

Kirchner: String Quartet No. 1

Beethoven: String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 127

Program the greatest chamber work ever written for the oboe, and invite the greatest oboist in the world to play in it, and it is a foregone conclusion that this listener, at least, will be a happy man. So it proved at this superb Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert.

The pleasure afforded stemmed not only from Richard Woodhams’s tone—which combined satisfying depth and warmth with the instrument’s signature incisiveness, and his unfailingly graceful phrasing, which achieved especially magical delicacy at the lead-in to the first movement’s recapitulation—but also to the evident unanimity he shared with Daniel Phillips, Steven Tenenbom, and Timothy Eddy of the Orion String Quartet. Tempi, moreover, were set with such good judgement that one simply didn’t notice them consciously.

Unanimity—of two distinct varieties—was again in evidence when, with Todd Phillips taking over the first-violin chair in line with the Orion’s standard practice of exchange between the violin parts, the program concluded with one of Beethoven’s most wonderful late string quartets. Less overtly revolutionary than its neighbors in that final grouping, Opus 127 is an essentially lyrical work. The lyricism reaches its highest peak in the heaven-scaling slow movement, and here the players’ total technical, tonal, and expressive integration of the four instrumental parts demonstrated that this sublime movement is written as if for one single and indivisible instrument. This was unanimity of a specifically physical kind. But the other three movements benefitted just as much from four distinct players tossing ideas from one to another, in a manner that blended individual character with an overarching intellectual consensus of musical aim.

Leon Kirchner not being a composer I have usually warmed to, I had not been looking forward with much expectation of enjoyment to his First String Quartet, but it proved to be one of the best works of his that I have encountered. I am not sure that the thematic material is of sufficiently strong character to make the music’s formal processes clearly perceptible. There are, however, many passages of luminous beauty, and a performance of dazzling virtuosity revealed that the composer had created genuinely compelling rhythmic pulse in the quicker sections—a particularly impressive feat in the context of an essentially chromatic idiom.

Bernard Jacobson

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