Stanley Fefferman’s Chamberfest Diary, Thursday, August 7: Part Two

7:30 pm, Thursday, August 7, Ottawa Chamberfest ’08.

Many connoisseurs assert that the Leipzig String Quartet is the among the best in the world.  Well, why not!  Anything I have ever heard them play, no matter how familiar, turns out to be a surprise gift. This night began with a surprise: they have a new first violin. Andreas Seidel has left the quartet he founded 20 years ago with three other principals of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Seidel’s successor as ‘primarius’, also a former Gewandhaus principal, is the violinist Stefan Arzberger pictured here to the left of Tilman Buning [Click on the photo for an enlargement].

The middle item on their program was the “String Quartet in A minor, opus 13,“ by Felix Mendelssohn who became the Gewandhaus’ Musical Director in 1835 at the age of 24, about 4 years after he composed this quartet.  The A minor is Mendelssohn’s extended love song to a mysterious romantic attachment he formed before he was 20. By relying on the technical complexity that the formidable Beethoven was demonstrating in his later quartets, Mendelssohn succeeded in producing a work in which youthful romantic ideas achieved expression in mature classical forms with an effortless that brought the composer instant success with publishers and the public alike. These Leipzigers lit up to Mendelssohn’s lyrical flow bringing out an awesome range of colour and texture, while maintaining a meticulous edge of precision and balance.

Beethoven’s “opus 95”, nicknamed ‘Serioso’ had the impact of a musical news flash. It is the shortest and tightest of his quartets, but possesses a kind of monumental grandeur. The Leipzigers played with such clean intonation, keeping their entrances surgically precise, particularly in passages containing mysterious silences and seemingly off-the-wall eruptions, with the result that the musical lines glowed like the a night photo of an active volcano.

Saving the best for last was the performance that gave me the greatest high of this year’s Chamberfest, the “Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57”, by Dmitri Shostakovich. For clarity and classical balance there is the ‘Prelude,’ that runs through gamut of moods from solemnity through gaiety to intense drama.  For profundity that could move you to tears, there is the ‘Adagio: fugue’ introduced by Arzberger’s melancholy violin as a folk motif that arches in an unbroken line, builds to a heated climax and subsides into silence.

For fire and fury, there is the ‘Scherzo’ that Stéphane Lemelin introduces with a feisty two-phrase piano ditty. This evokes a raucous, barely friendly, dissonant response from the strings that resolves into a folkdance whose wildness re-ignites the fire and fury of the opening. The ‘Intermezzo’ walks a staccato line through a gallery of tone colours until Lemelin’s piano leads it into a kind of Russian ‘Bring in the Clowns’ dance/march that whirls us into the hectic flush of Carnival high spirits, then settles us on quiet ground, in a kind of sobering dawn of realization.

This kind of all out, high contrast, full-hearted but grounded intelligence we heard in this performance is the signature of The Leipzig String Quartet.

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