United States Mozart, Ravel, Beethoven: Johannes String Quartet, Benjamin Franklin Hall, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 4.3.2018. (BJ)
Mozart – String Quartet in D major, K.499, ‘Hoffmeister’
Ravel – String Quartet
Beethoven – String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131
String quartets come and go. Some of those that burst on the scene with the greatest éclat last for many years, while others prove to be flashes in the pan. When I was growing up in England, the Amadeus Quartet, founded in 1947 and active for 40 years with no changes of personnel, may be said to have dominated the London chamber-music scene without any substantial competition from other groups. Yet, by the time I was beginning to hear them regularly, Messrs. Brainin, Nissel, Schidlof, and Lovett had started to sound distinctly jaded when playing great Austro-German classics of the quartet repertoire; it was as if they had already played them hundreds of times, and had nothing fresh to communicate to their listeners, so it was no surprise and no real disappointment when they disbanded.
It has been very different with ensembles like the Juilliard, Fine Arts, Vermeer, Cleveland, and Emerson quartets in the United States and the Lindsays in England, all of whom, with or without personnel changes, have kept their freshness unblemished throughout long years on the concert circuit. And the Johannes String Quartet has similarly lost nothing of the élan, sensitivity, and technical polish that distinguished its debut. That happened at a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert in 1998. So it was only appropriate that the group (now with founder member Soovin Kim as first violin in succession to Robert Chen and Cathy Cho, with the original violist and cellist Choong-Jin Chang and Peter Stumpf still in place, and with Julianne Lee following Kim and Jessica Lee on the second-violin chair) should also have made this, its farewell appearance, for PCMS, which has presented the Johannes in every one of the intervening seasons.
For the occasion, a strong and varied program had been chosen, and it was played with all of the ensemble’s familiar virtues. Soovin Kim, indeed, who has given superb accounts in the past of such challenging works as Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, is playing these days as well as I have ever heard. The smoothness of his tone and the depth of his musical understanding were ideally matched by his three partners throughout the program. The Ravel quartet emerged with all of its elegance vividly in evidence. Beethoven’s Op.131 — very possibly the composer’s greatest work — was mined for every one of its constantly surprising yet always inevitable musical and poetic effects. And the Mozart work was as stylish and sensitive as one could wish, though I have to confess that the omission of not just one but both of the first-movement repeats could be felt to suggest just a trace of over-familiarity and consequent impatience beginning to infect the players’ approach.
I do not know why the Johannes has decided to call it a day — its management tells me that all four of the players have individual projects that they was to pursue — but the group’s absence from the concert stage will be a deprivation hard to repair for all lovers of great chamber-music performance. Warm thanks are due for all they have given us over the past 20 years.