December 7, 2006
Music Toronto Presents the Vermeer Quartet
Jane Mallett Theatre
Despite a perfunctory start to their valedictory concert in Toronto, the men of the Vermeer managed to intrigue this savvy Music Toronto audience with a program of early Schubert, mature Mendelssohn, signature Shostakovich.
Schubert composed his E flat quartet, D.87 when he was a 16 year old seminarian, and he performed it at home with his family. The work exhibits a cheerfulness that looks back to Haydn, some sweet melancholy passages in the adagio modeled on Mozart (uttered lyrically by Marc Johnson’s cello). The uneven phrasing and arrested tempos in which the Vermeer wisely hold open the silent spaces showcase the composer’s emergent maturity.
To this ear, the pace of the first two movements seemed draggy and mechanical; the gravelly voice of Richard Young’s viola perplexed. However, the ensemble came together by the finale with its perky recapitulation. One took away the sense of a cleanly sculpted work, well constructed along simple lines, unspoiled in temper, yet connected to awareness of the weight that would soon descend on Schubert’s short life.
Shostakovich’s 8th quartet in C Minor invokes the weight of the world and makes it sing a carefree song before subsiding into a soft dark silence. Themes from the composer’s life that enter into the composition include a visit to the bombed out ruins of Dresden in 1960, a thwarted suicide attempt that pointed to the composer’s continuing suppression by Stalin, and Shostakovich’s irrepressible urge to speak out.
Launched by a dramatically quiet cello solo, the notes of Shostakovich’s DSCH signature develop, albeit a bit slowly, from a transfixingly lovely melody into a hectic, dissonant Gypsy dance theme. From this point onward, the Vermeer bond into a cuttingly clear singing voice: Shmuel Ashkenasi’s fiddle is irreverent; the viola is elegiac–raw with a purpose–before melting into dark caramel tones towards the close. Mathias Tacke’s tender-sweet bowing insinuates like vines around the cello’s riveting groans, reminding us that the business of art is to look into the face of suffering and find there inspiration to sing and dance as long as there is life.
Blissful is the word for the period of Mendelssohn’s life when he composed the Quartet in E Minor, Op. 44, No. 2. In 1836, at the age of 27, Mendelssohn occupied the front rank of German musicians, had secured his international fame, and for the next four years, presided over the brilliant concert life of Leipzig. Mendelssohn took a bit of springtime in the Schwartzwald, during his honeymoon, to compose this quartet.
The work is full of mid-summer dreaming combined with Mendelssohn’s inside knowledge of the violin and viola. There is hectic excitement and sweet reflection in the first movement–Wordsworthian ‘emotion recollected in tranquility.’ The perky ‘scherzo’ is animated by the cello’s pizzicato, so sexy, it sketched a smile onto the cellist. A theme in the ‘andante’ played romantically and sweet on Mathias Tacke’s violin so prefigured, in a good way, the voice of Adriana Caselotti singing “Some Day My Prince Will come” in Disney’s 1937 movie “Snow White”. Unaccountably, the closing sections of this quartet moved my mind westward and forward in time to the sweeping space of Aaron Copeland’s America, and in this space, one could hear ‘outsider’ music: the music of the troubadour, the lonesome rider, the wandering Jew.
On this note, we say farewell to the Vermeer, that quartet aptly named for the painter who enhanced his subjects with an intricate combination of proportion, colour and light.