Thursday, April 6, 2017

String quartets at Palos Verdes


REVIEW: California String Quartet play Mozart, Smetana and Beethoven

South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes
DAVID J BROWN

Katia Popov
Neel Hammond
Zach Dellinger
Mia Barcia-Colombo
The California String Quartet seems to have a fairly fluid line-up of personnel: the four players named on its website and who appeared in the group photograph on the SBCMS’s flyer differed by two (2nd violin and ’cello) in the printed program listing for this concert, and by the time the quartet actually appeared before the audience last Sunday afternoon a further re-substitution (’cello again) had taken place. So to keep the record straight, the two constants in the line-up – Katia Popov (1st violin) and Zach Dellinger (viola) – were joined on the stage by Neel Hammond (2nd violin) and Mia Barcia-Colombo (’cello).

I wonder if these changes impacted available rehearsal time – certainly their performance of the opening work, the 16-year-old Mozart’s three-movement Divertimento in B flat, K.137/125b, was somewhat broad-brush and lacking in subtlety. The Andante first movement seemed sluggish and the many dynamic alternations between piano and forte were largely ironed out to a mp-mf range. (I can’t be the only person to speculate that if this work’s movement order was somehow changed to put the slow movement second as in the two companion so-called “Salzburg Symphonies” K.136 and K.138, it would never be queried, particularly as the harmonies in the Andante’s opening bars feel in media res, as if the musical discourse has already been going on out of earshot and is only now becoming audible.)

While one must always respect interpretative decisions, the biggest problem for me was the paucity of repeats. The score marks both halves of all three movements to be repeated, and while taking both the Andante’s pair does bring its timing up to a hefty 8+ minutes – more than half the work’s total even if all the others are included – to omit both, as here, gave a perfunctory effect. The inclusion also of only the short first repeats in the Allegro di molto (not very molto in this performance but strong and decisive) and the final Allegro assai (nice and vigorous) brought the whole work in under 10 minutes, making it seem much more minor early Mozart than I think it is.

So far so hum, but things improved a good deal with Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 in E minor T. 116 (From My Life). Mr Dellinger introduced the work, first noting Smetana’s reputation as the “father” of Czech music, a role in which he was well established – more than anything by the success of The Bartered Bride (1866) – by the time he wrote this quartet at the age of 52 some 10 years later. Though not particularly innovative formally (sonata-form first movement; second-movement polka plus slower central section standing in for scherzo-and-trio; lyrical slow movement; fast finale, at least initially), its explicitly autobiographical program seems to have been a first for the chamber music repertoire, and Mr Dellinger went on to outline this, movement by movement: from youth (I), through high-spirited dance (II) and then radiant love (III), to (IV) joyous embracing of Czech national music and finally the fateful onset of deafness as represented by a sustained high E on the first violin forte against ominous tremolos from the other three instruments.

Clearly this work means a lot to these performers, and Mr Dellinger went on to deliver the first movement’s main theme with vigor and commitment (a rare shining moment for viola-players). This was matched by Ms Barcia-Colombo’s eloquent account of the long espressivo ’cello solo at the start of the Largo sostenuto third movement, not to mention Ms Popov’s almost painfully intense assault on that high E near the end of the finale. Altogether they did the work proud; I wonder if they’ve ever tackled Smetana’s Second Quartet in D minor, completed a year before he died.

After the interval, it was on to a supreme masterpiece of the string quartet repertoire, and one that appears much more often in concert programs than the relatively rare Smetana. The on-line program notes for some reason attached the subtitle “Eroica” to Beethoven’s String Quartet in C, Op. 59 No. 3 (of the so-called “Razumovsky” set) – a spurious appellation that I was glad to see not carried over into the printed programs, in case anyone thought they might be getting a string quartet transcription of the Third Symphony. This was generally well done, particularly in the California Quartet’s carefully judged tempo for the (so carefully marked) Andante con moto quasi allegretto second movement, conveying its relentless, surreptitious and haunting progress without actually becoming monotonous.

This almost made up for the omission of the first movement exposition repeat. I know I can be a bit OCD about repeats, and will admit that at the time of the Mozart, more than 30 years earlier, sections were so often routinely marked for repeat that observation of every one can easily lead to surreptitious watch-glancing, but when the most transformative genius in music’s history, in a mature masterpiece, indicates that he wants one, surely he means it?

Enough said. After a quite weighty account of the third movement Menuetto grazioso (no problem with giving that a bit of heft) the quartet tore into the fugal finale, surely the equivalent for sheer dynamism in Beethoven’s string quartets of the finale of the Seventh in his symphonies. I remember reading in a long-defunct music magazine many years ago an English critic’s comment that this movement alone was more exciting than anything to be found in what then was often lumped together as “pop music”. Of course he got a lot of stick in the correspondence columns of the next issue, but this performance, the first I had heard live in a very long time, made me think – yes, he just might have been right.  

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South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, April 2, 2017
Photos: Katia Popov: Barbra Porter; Neel Hammond: Spike TV; Zach Dellinger; Mia Barcia-Colombo

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