Romanticism and a Recent Work from an Outstanding Quartet

United StatesUnited States Jalbert, Brahms: Chiara String Quartet (Rebecca Fischer, Hyeyung Yoon, violins; Jonah Sirota, viola; Gregor Beaver, cello), Toddler Palmer (clarinet), The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, 11.5.2017 (KG)

Pierre JalbertCanticle (String Quartet No.6)
Brahms – Clarinet Quintet Op.115

After a remarkable residency last year at the Metropolitan Museum, which culminated in the complete Bartók string quartets from memory, the wonderful Chiara String Quartet returned to the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium after a remarkable residency last year that culminated in their playing the complete Bartók string quartets from memory. (They committed the same act on their Bartók by Heart recording last year.) This concert paired a classic of romanticism with a new work.

Two members of the quartet were undergrads at Rice University when Pierre Jalbert started teaching there in 1996, and the composer and quartet have enjoyed a fruitful working relationship. Jalbert wrote his Canticle (String Quartet No.6) for the ensemble, with which they opened the concert.

The piece began with soft bells before the strings entered, slowly converging on a harmonic structure, almost static except for the motion of the bows. The bowing increased in velocity while the harmonic quadrangle seemed barely to change. Now and again, a melody line would break free, only to be gently pulled back in. It was immensely effective.

The third movement employed a nice pizzicato which, in short order, the violinists changed to playing with small, glass rods. In the fourth of the piece’s six movements, the cello used its upper register against bowed harmonics from the others – cello harmonies in what seemed to be impossible finger manipulations, almost sounding like a waterphone. The six movements lasted about 40 minutes, but still seemed tauntingly short. From there, there were bolder expressions, more syncopated sections, but nothing resolved that mystery of the fourth movement (tellingly entitled “Ethereal”). Maybe it was for the best, adhering to the credo “always leave them wanting more” (even if you went on to give them more). There was a return to the bells, bowed this time and softly piercing, then a heartbreakingly beautiful melody in a conventional quartet arrangement, then back to the quadrangle, as if losing every iota of momentum before coming to an end.

It was a fantastically satisfying piece (even with its lack of resolution). It may have been great. But in case it wasn’t, the Chiara ensured greatness in the second half, with the gorgeous last gasp of German romanticism that is Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115, joined by clarinetist Todd Palmer, a three-time Grammy nominee. His spoken introduction suggested he was quite comfortable with canned commentary. His tone on the instrument, however, more than made up for it, melting into the strings.

Chiara is playing at a level few quartets can boast. Working without scores has allowed them to put their attention on performance – on playing with each other rather than playing from the page. And while they were using scores for this concert, those past efforts paid off. They seemed to breathe together through the many hills and curves of Brahms’ masterwork, the clarinet lines sealed within as if frozen in amber. The argument is sometimes made that too many performers and promoters focus on too few canonical pieces, but in the presence of such a performance, it’s hard to complain.

Kurt Gottschalk

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