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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Concert Review: The All-Stars Chamber

Marc-André Hamelin joins the Juilliard String Quartet at the 92nd St. Y.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Juilliard String Quartet (right and left) were joined by Marc-André Hamelin (Center) on Friday night at the 92nd St. Y.
Photo interpolation by the author, who should really know better than to try things like this on deadline.

It's an incredible luxury to be able to do whatever the hell you want. On Friday night, pianist Marc-Andre Hámelin joined the Juilliard String Quartet for their appearance at the 92nd St. Y, adding himself to the second half of a concert program of chamber music. The Juilliard Quartet is just as storied (if not more so) than Mr. Hamelin, having existed in one form or another since its foundation by composer-critic Virgil Thomson in 1946.

The Quartet (violinists Roger Copes and Areta Zhulla (the newest member, added just last year) violist Roger Tapping and cellist Astrid Schween) took the stage with the String Quartet No. 5 by the father of their very art form, Franz Josef Haydn. Haydn is thought of as the grand old man of the classical era, but he was just 18 when he invented the string quartet. He was in the service of an Austrian baron and the available players were (yep, you guessed it) two violins, a viola and a cello. (Haydn, throughout his life, preferred the viola parts.)

The Op. 76 No. 5 features this master of classical form late in life, cheerfully shrugging off the straitjacket of that form for the kind of free inspiration that would point the way forward to a younger generation of composers. The Juilliard players traded themes flawlessly in the first movement, a set of vafriations on a gently rocking folk tune. The slow Largo gives this quartet its nickname, a soulful exploration with the lower instruments sighing gently along the main melodic line. A courtly, conservative minuet followed, feeling like a setup for the pell-mell finale as the players whizzed through Haydn's staccato passages with speed and grace.

Next the players turned to contemporary music with the Six moments musicaux from the pen of György Kurtag. These are aphoristic pieces, almost fragmentary in nature that explore the sound of the four instruments from different angles. A sharp Invocation led off, almost like an intake of breath before Footfalls, which takes a funereal tread inspired by the writing of Samuel Beckett. This plodding music gave way to the cheerful Capriccio, which placed its rests in an unusual rhythm that made it sound as if the instrumentalists had all come down with a bad case of the hiccups.

The fourth movement returned to seriousness with an elegy for Kurtág's piano teacher, alternating a grief-stricken downward durge with a gentle and hopeful figure that spread its wings between the two violinists. The fifth movement, with its trills and high harmonies evoked the spiky writing of Oliver Messiaen. Like that late French composer, Kurtag was inspired here by bird-song, and the tricky intervals and high phrases pushed each of the four players to the limits of their technique. The finale is labeled Les adieux in Janáček's manner.. But this is not a raucous Czech folk celebration but an exploration of that composer's use of musical phrasing based on human conversational speech. It was sharp, juddering and mysterious, as it faded to silence.

After intermission (where the piano tuner was given a polite round of audience applause as he prepared the instrument for Mr. Hamelin, it was time for the Dvorak Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major. The seating of the players was odd, as the upstage piano seemed remote from the downstage quartet, but Mr. Hamelin used eye contact to stay in close sync with the players, glancing at Mr. Tapping for cues when needed. The players sounded like they were having fun with the expansive first movement, a meld between Dvorak's love of Czech folk material and his rigorous adherence to sonata form.

The two central movements veer closer to the former, as each is based on a Czech folk dance. The characteristic "Dumky" rhythm dominates the outer parts of the slow movement, before yielding up a rich vein of warm melody in the "b" section with the viola (Dvořák's instrument) to the fore. The slap-shot "Furiant" movement was invigorating, boiling with energy before giving way to a more melodic middle section. Finally, the last movement was a fast finale, a set of variations that have a curveball in the middle in the form a massive and symphonic fugue. The players hit this out of the park, rounded the bases and brought the music home in a joyous finish.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats