The Jupiter String Quartet, in the fourth of this season'ês University of Washington's International Chamber Music Series, offered a rare chance to hear music in Seattle by Thomas AdÃ¨s, who in the last ten years has become Britain'ês Number One Musical Export.
Still in his thirties, AdÃ¨s has been the Director of the Aldeburgh Festival founded by Benjamin Britten; has had residencies at Carnegie Hall and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; and has attracted a string of commissions from such prestigious sources as Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as London'ês Royal Opera for whom he wrote his opera on The Tempest. In addition to being a fine composer, AdÃ¨s is an accomplished pianist and an effective conductor.
AdÃ¨s'ê large output covers a range of styles often influenced by jazz and dance. He creates innovative sonorities, often at the extreme boundary of the voice or instrument. In The Tempest for example, the part of Ariel is written throughout at the very highest reach of the soprano voice — hard for the singer to perform and for listeners to hear the words. But generally his music is not difficult to listen to or understand, and some of it conveys an intriguing sense of magic below the surface of the obvious world.
The piece the Jupiter Quartet played at Meany Hall last week was his seven-movement suite "Arcadiana," written not long before AdÃ¨s started work on The Tempest. In form it is akin to a baroque suite except that in addition to dance as a model, AdÃ¨s uses a wider range of cultural reference — other music (Mozart, Schubert, Elgar); pictures by Watteau and Poussin; and at the end, the inspiration of the mythic river Lethe, symbolic of forgetfulness in the afterlife.
He has said that the suite is designed to "evoke images associated with ideas of the idyll, vanished or imaginary." It has its dark side; two movements do convey conflict and distress, but generally the music is characterized by an attractive other-worldly wistfulness. It seems almost to reflect the description by Caliban in Shakespeare's Tempest: "The isle is full of noise, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not." It received an exemplary performance from the Jupiter Quartet, convinced and well projected, which went over well with the none-too-large audience.
The second piece in this skillfully constructed program started with Mendelssohn'ês Quartet in A minor Opus 13, and after the intermission came the second, in E minor, of Beethoven'ês Opus 59 Razoumovsky quartets. Of the three in the Beethoven set this is the least often played. Relative to the others it is intense and introverted, and most foreshadows Beethoven'ês late period quartets in style and mood. It is always a great pleasure to hear.
The Jupiter Quartet has been playing together since 2001. And they do indeed play together — their ensemble is impeccable and so is their intonation. They give special prominence to the inner parts, the second violin and the viola being clearly strong players as well as sisters. Their strengths include a dynamic approach: energetic, sometimes fiercely accented playing.
What would also have been welcome in the Beethoven was a greater sense of tonal bloom and, not least in the slow movement, the music'ês soaring lyricism. Overall, their interpretation left an impression of tense and somewhat nervy playing. Nevertheless, it was gratifying to have the opportunity to hear the AdÃ¨s piece and the well-constructed intelligent program.