This season's UW chamber music series at Meany Hall offers a balance between great and established quartets playing the classical repertory and younger groups mixing in more modern or offbeat fare. Forthcoming concerts by the Chiara (Beethoven and a world premiere of a quartet by Daniel Ott) and Harlem (Beethoven, Shostakovich, Borodin and Chick Corea) groups represent the mix. The more traditionally classical approach is represented by the Emerson Quartet (Haydn, Bartok, and Brahms) at the end of the season, and Tuesday’s concert by the Philharmonia Quartet from Berlin.
The Berliners gave us Shostakovich's 13th Quartet, Beethoven’s second Rasumovsky quartet, and Debussy's only piece for the medium. It made for a severe evening in the first two quartets, which were marked almost throughout by anguish and disquiet.
The Shostakovich quartet is powerful but even by his standards austere and cheerless. It's a single adagio movement in a highly dissonant idiom with some nods to the Schoenberg twelve-tone system. The work consists of a sustained and highly chromatic melody passed between the instruments interspersed with wild dithyrambic leaps and trills on the higher instruments as though the music were trying to find some exit from its own gloomy landscape.
There is no exit, and as the piece proceeds a repeated but sinisterly unpredictable knocking, created by tapping an instrument bow on a violin's wooden body, becomes increasingly dominant. The piece ends amid the sinister knocking and without any of the resigned sardonic humor that Shostakovich often found to distance himself and his listeners from the bleak emotional world which so much of his music depicts.
In spite of its intense and lyrical slow movement, Beethoven's Quartet in E Minor Opus 59 No 2 is also an unquiet work, the least extroverted of the Rasumovksy group. Its dramatically conflicted first movement and nervy tarantella-like finale make for a powerful and sombre experience.
The Debussy quartet in the second half lightened the tone somewhat and was delivered with verve and finesse and, in the slow movement, there was playing of seductive tenderness. Debussy’s exquisite harmonies may invite lingering but the players kept a strong sense of forward movement, consistent with the composer’s directions: the first movement marking is “Animated and very forthright (décidé).”
The Berlin Philharmonia Quartet has a close association with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, perhaps the most consistently impressive of Europe’s great orchestras. The orchestra promotes its concerts in the home city and the players are or have been members. Certainly the quartet’s first violin can be seen as concertmaster in some of the concerts viewable on the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall.
The works in their Meany program all included a good deal of solo lines for all four players. It was clear that each of them is an exceptional artist. Together they are a fine ensemble with both power and refinement and delivering interpretations of great depth.
Taken overall, a sombre evening and a fine one for the connoisseur.