A Superb Quartet Raises Questions of Proportion

United StatesUnited States Salonen, Mozart & Beethoven: Johannes Quartet, Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 31.3.2016. (BJ)

Salonen: Homunculus for string quartet
Mozart: String Quartet in D minor, K. 421
Beethoven: String Quartet in D minor, Op. 59 No. 2, “Razumovsky”

The string quartets that the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society brings to town for our delectation are in most cases prodigally gifted, and the Johannes Quartet is among the most gifted of those we have seen and heard lately. Yet, like many of their colleague ensembles, they remind me of the kind of drivers we have all encountered on the road—the people that signal at one turn, and then don’t bother to do so at the next, seemingly under the impression that giving direction signals is a matter of mere arbitrary choice.

What has that to do with the music of Mozart and Beethoven? Well, almost every string quartet I encounter these days (since the regretted retirement of the Lindsays, who observed composers’ instructions meticulously) seems similarly to believe that when a composer tells you to repeat the exposition of a sonata-form first movement, you do it, but when he tells you a few pages later to repeat the development and recapitulation, you don’t have to bother.

This particular program, made up of consistently strong works, was instructive in that respect. In Mozart’s saturnine D-minor, there is no significant thematic or structural feature to render the second repeat particularly essential: it is essential only in the general sense of setting up the proportions of the music as Mozart imagined them. But the first movement of Beethoven’s E-minor “Razumovsky” Quartet is ingeniously planned around careful designed and varied recurrences of the figure of two declaratory chords with which it opens. They come back in almost exactly their original shape to usher in the start of the exposition repeat; later they are dramatically modified at the start of the development section, and return, again in modified shape, when the repeat of that section begins; and their final appearance, subtly varied once again, is at the point where repeated recapitulation leads into coda.

I am not suggesting that a performance disregarding the second of the two repeats cannot be a thoroughly impressive and indeed profoundly perceptive one. The Johannes Quartet’s performance of the work, as indeed of their entire program, certainly deserved that description. Tempos were chosen with excellent judgment. First violinist Soovin Kim and the new occupant of the group’s second-violin chair, Julianne Lee, played superbly throughout, the latter emulating her senior partner’s eloquence whenever the principal melodic line fell to her to present. Choong-Jin Chang, the outstanding principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was no less compelling. P,eter Stumpf, himself a former member of that orchestra, is as masterly an exponent of the cello part in chamber music as he was of its orchestral equivalent, supplying a rock-solid basis fore the ensemble sound without ever forcing his tone, and singing seductively in the highest register whenever the composers took him there.

Much as I loved both performances, I am suggesting only that the omission of some of the stages in Beethoven’s so careful and concentrated marshaling of his thematic material gives us a slightly but regrettably inaccurate picture of the movement as he planned it. And the same is true, if only in the more general sphere of overall thematic and expressive balance, in the Mozart work.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Homunculus raises no such issues. It is a one-movement work, written in 2007 for the Johannes Quartet, with the intention of creating “a little piece that behaves like a big piece.” (In this performance it ran a couple of minutes longer than the 12 minutes his program note estimated as its duration.) Little or big, it is a prime example of Salonen’s gifts: he has long seemed to me perhaps even more talented as a composer than in his more familiar role as a conductor. Salonen’s own instrument was the horn, but Homunculus is laid out with unfailing skill and imagination for the four instruments of a string quartet, and draws a wonderfully solid and well-ventilated sound from the group, while its melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic language is constantly stimulating and—too rare a word in the description of what new music sounds like—entertaining. Now how about a larger-scale string quartet from Salonen’s pen?

Bernard Jacobson

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