Miami String Quartet @ Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, December 4, 2008, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

The Miami String Quartet is developing its reputation for presenting new and contemporary works. Despite the temptation to specialize in new music, cellist Keith Robinson has confessed he could not give up the pleasure of playing Haydn. Last night at their Music Toronto debut, the Miami offered an exciting new work by Joan Tower that they have been premiering since September. And though they didn’t play Haydn, they did begin the concert with the second of the Mozart string quartets influenced by and dedicated to Haydn, the “String Quartet in D Minor, K.421.”

This austerely beautiful work shows the fruits of Mozart’s “long and laborious study” of Haydn’s Op. 33: the fully developed four-part interaction, the use of counterpoint for thematic intensification, the increased use of chromaticism and strong dissonance, the increased complexity. These developments in Haydn’s own writing came to Mozart’s attention when he was going through a ‘Sturm und Drang” period as financial troubles and disappointments were encumbering him. This particular quartet, the only mature work he wrote in a minor key, is songful, sorrowful and throbbing with the drama of bittersweet harmonies.

The first few bars of the Miami’s account were a bit more gritty, not to say muddy, than I would have liked, but gradually they seemed to clarify the extended range of dynamics and subtle interplay of instruments. The cello was particularly affecting in expanding the elegant main melody of the nocturnal ‘Andante’. Their display of elegant gravity continued during the stately ‘Minuet’ where guest violinist Benny Kim’s Strad dances over a contrasting pizzicato accompaniment. And as the emotional pitch rises in the ‘Finale’, some Haydnesque humour comes through in the lilting melody of one variation. Violist Yu Jin’s work comes to prominence just before the closing return to the wistful tonic.  The audience seemed a bit more uplifted by this performance than I was.

The energy the Miami put into Joan Tower’s “String Quartet No. 4,” was irresistible. Demonic glissandos especially on the cello, minimalist locomotive surges, accelerandos rising to panic levels, clearly discernable canonic, fugal and counterpoint passages, and weird moments of spacey solitude, all work together to give a sense of the hospital drama that inspired Tower’s work.  This exciting 18 minute work is the composer’s “tribute to the people who stepped in to save my brother after he suffered a pretty major stroke.”

Following intermission, the Miami gave us one of the most technically demanding works in the entire repertoire, Debussy’s “Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10.” This work is transitional for Debussy as the quartets of Op. 33 were for Haydn, and the six “Haydn” quartets were for Mozart. Debussy was working his way out of the dominant Viennese models still practiced in France by Cesar Franck and his disciples. In “Op. l0,” the 30 year old composer was finding the parallel chord progressions and atmospheric, kaleidoscopic, subtle musicality that became characteristic of his work after “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune”, composed in the following year, 1894.

While I enjoyed this wonderful music, particularly the clarity this ensemble brought to the recurring motto theme that is the backbone of the entire work, I couldn’t help wondering about something: That is, whether the muscular hi-def energy the Miami had brought to the Tower quartet wasn’t carrying over into the Debussy, where a lighter-handed, ‘French’ elegance and a certain transparency might be more enjoyable.  That said, a well executed performance of Debussy’s dizzying array of textures and effects, the endless changes never fails to impress.

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